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On wabi sabi and ! The Author(s) 2016
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the aesthetics of
DOI: 10.1177/1354067X16650811

family secrets: Reading

Haruki Murakami’s
Kafka on the shore
Yariv Orgad
Ben-Gurion University Ben-Gurion University Beer-Sheva, Israel

Family secrets are commonly considered as a defense mechanism that conceals shameful
content and evades guilt. As shame and guilt threaten narcissistic perfection, secrecy func-
tions as a self-protective mechanism by evading acknowledgment of imperfection, thus
conceptualizing imperfection as a psychological threat. However, the meaning of perfection
and imperfection is culturally grounded, and, therefore, our understanding of family secrets
may gain better understanding by examining different cultural perspectives of perfection/
imperfection. In this context, we can gain insights to the process of family secrets through
wabi sabi, a Japanese aesthetic ideal and philosophy that stresses imperfection as the basis
for harmony. In this paper, I suggest an interpretation of family secrets that draws on wabi
sabi aesthetics. The paper’s main argument is illustrated through a careful reading of
Murakami’s Kafka on the shore, presenting wabi sabi of family secrets as distinguished aes-
thetics and a potential source for mental transformation and growth.

Family secrets, cultural psychology, aesthetics, wabi sabi, imperfection, psychoanalysis,

‘‘There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no

acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of
true harmony.’’ (Murakami, 2014, p. 320)

Corresponding author:
Yariv Orgad, Ben-Gurion University Ben-Gurion University Beer-Sheva, 84105 Israel.
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‘‘Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mys-
teries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.’’ (Keats, quoted in
Bion, 1970, p. 125)

Family secrets are usually considered as stemming from shameful content that
raises guilt and, therefore, must be concealed (e.g., Smart, 2009). Furthermore,
it is not solely the content that raises guilt, but also the harmed relationship that
was impaired by concealment (Afifi, Olson, & Armstrong, 2005), leading to a
vicious circle within a family aimed to maintain an alleged unity and harmony.
Thus family secrets may be understood as a mechanism used conjointly by family
members to protect the sense of self and the unity of the family from collapsing
under the weight of imperfect self-perceptions and impaired relationships.
This conceptualization suggests approaching family secrets as a mechanism for
self-regulation aimed at protection of self-esteem and interpersonal competency,
which is identified as ‘‘the motivating force in narcissistic functioning’’
(Ronningstam, 2011, p. 254). Therefore, secrecy allegedly reduces vulnerability of
the self by concealing and evading acknowledgment of imperfection. In other words,
imperfection is considered a threat to be controlled by secrecy.
Nevertheless, this protection by secrecy entangles families in what Smart (2011,
p. 545) calls a ‘‘moral quagmire’’ that constrains the functioning of families as a
source for identity formation. Secrecy is understood as a psychological burden on
individuals and families that alienate both from core shared biographies by which a
sense of self is constructed. It is, therefore, understandable that concealment is
affiliated with difficulties and with a strong inclination for disclosure. However,
as research has shown (e.g., Berger & Paul, 2008; Smart, 2009), the tendency to
conceal or disclose is culturally motivated; hence, the meaning of secrecy raises the
need for careful interpretative efforts. Considering secrecy as concealing imperfec-
tion, an in-depth analysis of the meaning of imperfection within a specific cultural
context is suggested and illustrated through the Japanese aesthetic ideal of wabi sabi.
The next section presents the concept of wabi sabi and elaborates it with regard
to secrecy.

Wabi sabi: Understanding secrecy through

Japanese aesthetics
The meaning of imperfection
Wabi sabi is a Japanese aesthetic ideal and philosophy that can be traced back to
Chinese Taoism, and to its Japanese follower—Zen. It is in Japanese arts that wabi
sabi emerged and reached its zenith in the sixteenth century, and has since been
expressed in practices such as tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging), and raku
Orgad 3

pottery (Juniper, 2003). These examples epitomize wabi sabi’s ideal of beauty,
which is meant to evoke the purest, modest, un-mediated, and most sublime
form of naturalness—by dismissing human intentional involvement (Bucca, 2007).
Naturalness is aroused through accentuating such assets as imperfection, transience, and
asymmetry (Koren, 2008), not merely for their own sake, but rather as a way to ‘‘accept
things as they are and to find beauty . . . in the mundane’’. (Juniper, 2003, p. 20)
Stressing these assets acknowledges that nature constrains human pursuit
after perfection, namely, perfection is unachievable. It is the passage of time as
reflected in the physical world that realizes this constraint, hence advocating
greater tolerance toward the unexpected, irregular, and imperfect, and dismissing
as irrelevant humans’ hopeless chase after perfection. Thus the ideal of wabi sabi is
an unconventional aesthetic challenge that turns over the relation between man
and imperfection—one should learn to appreciate imperfection, instead of being
threatened by it. It is through this esthetic approach that wabi sabi’s challenging
meaning of imperfection—i.e., treating imperfection as the natural state of things—
may contribute to our understanding of secrecy as a psychological challenge to
As narcissism strives to conceal imperfection, since imperfection (e.g., experi-
ences that raise shame and guilt) is considered a threat, secrecy fully serves it by
evading points of imperfection. Thus secrecy exaggerates a fantasy of omnipotence
that alienates the self from reality, a crucial point for wabi sabi. According to wabi
sabi, the ego-motivated chase after perfection disrupts attunement with nature.
Attunement refers to the possibility of crossing the gap between subject and
object and reaching a reflective stand termed by Valsiner (1997, p. 24) ‘‘inclusive
separation’’ (for a psychoanalytic and Zenist discussion of this point, see also,
respectively, Bion, 1970; Suzuki, 1969). This is a mental state that while distin-
guishing between subject and object, allows reflection and intimate relation with
objects such that objects become ‘‘imbued with deeply personal meanings’’ (Abbey
& Valsiner, 2004). Therefore, according to wabi sabi, and for meaning to emerge
out of experiences in reality, the will for perfection, which blocks attunement, must
be eschewed.
To further explain, perfection, as an expression of narcissism, expresses a fan-
tasy of omnipotence that evades the differentiation between exterior and interior
realities and negates ‘‘psychological distancing’’ (Abbey & Valsiner, 2004), a mental
mechanism that enables meaning-making. For example, the guilty/shameful secret
holder coerces his inner ‘‘perfect’’ fantasy upon the imperfect/shameful reality.
Thus the subject becomes detached from reality as it is. In contrast, tolerance of
imperfection acknowledges that reality is beyond that fantasy. Such tolerance
maintains the subject-object gap, and brings about a relational experience of a
subject and its objects that enables mental life. In the above example, tolerance
towards shameful experiences would dismiss their threat and relief the narcissistic
pressure upon the subject to be ‘‘perfect’’. Furthermore, such tolerance may able
concealed experiences’ re-conceptualization and a transformation of the subject’s
relation with them, thus transforming secrecy into a force that challenges the
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narcissistic personality to cope with reality. This idea is grounded in the Zenist
argument that it is abandonment of preconceptions and learned conventions that
conditions attunement (Richard, 2000); hence advocating continuous contempla-
tion at the lived experience as it is, neglecting any prior conditioning evaluation of a
standardized perfection.
This approach recognizes reality as a holistic complexity that contains imperfec-
tion as an inherent and integral element, without interpreting it as a threat.
Imperfection exists in many forms, between them the ‘‘unknown’’ part of reality.
Therefore, in contrast with the wish to hide harmful or threatening information,
given that the ‘‘unknown’’ is not categorized as a negative impairment, it is sug-
gested that one may be strengthened, and even secured, through tolerance towards
secrecy. In line with that conceptualization of the relation towards secrecy, Zen
philosophy perceives ‘‘nothingness’’ as a component of reality that frees the mind
by transgressing its limits of intellectualism and rationalism (Suzuki, 1969). The
capacity to tolerate nothingness ‘‘engenders a spirit of inquiry’’ (Cooper, 2001,
p. 359) that ever broadens processes of meaning-making. Notwithstanding that
for any reader not acquainted with Zen, it may be mainly vagueness that charac-
terizes this reasoning, it is specifically Zen’s concern with vagueness that epitomizes
wabi sabi’s perception of the way signification and meaning-making occur. A fruit-
ful contribution that helps to clarify the importance of vagueness in meaning-
making is Kristeva’s (2014) concept of the ‘‘semiotic’’.
Kristeva’s ‘‘semiotic’’ refers to a ‘‘modality of sense prior to signification’’ (2014,
p. 72, emphases in source), articulating ‘‘other aspects of ‘meaning’ which are more
than mere ‘signification’’’ (Kristeva, 2004, p. 205), thus stressing ‘‘meaning’’ as a
constant transformative evolvement beyond the scope of rational language/think-
ing. This notion resonates with Zen’s focus on the fluidity of the mind, its capacity
to attune to the ongoing flow of natural occurrence, given the abandonment of
learned, culturally mediated ‘‘knowledge’’ (Suzuki, 1969, p. 20). The ‘‘semiotic’’
and the ‘‘fluid’’ layers of the mind correspond to Bion’s (1967; Grotstein, 2007)
concept of the unconscious as a meaning-making mechanism that transforms
senseless impressions of experiences into patterns of conscious personal meanings.
Drawing on the interrelatedness of psychoanalysis and Zen thought, it is suggested
that wabi sabi’s esthetics advocates that the unconscious/semiotic/fluid level of
experience may be resurrected by an abandonment of learned and culturally
mediated consciousness.
It is, therefore, suggested that drawing on the aesthetics of wabi sabi,
secrecy may be conceptualized as a trans-symbolic and emancipatory ‘‘loophole’’,
leaning on its emptiness as a transformative liberating source for a wider range of
meaning-making processes. Living with secrets may be an opportunity for creativ-
ity and recreation of the unconscious semiotic fluidity that leads to the state of
enlightenment known in Japanese as satori. Following this line of reasoning, it is
absence that secrets introduce in order to induce a melancholic transformative
experience. The next section reflects on the role of absence and melancholy in
Orgad 5

Absence and melancholy

The notion of absence as a source for meaning involves the conceptualization of
melancholy as an aesthetic emotion that bears an epistemological importance.
In melancholy, a reflective contemplation towards an absent object generates a
flow of meaning-making that strengthens the self’s resilience by altering the relation-
ship between ego and object (Brady, 2003). Melancholic contemplation transforms
absence into a ‘‘negative magnitude’’ (Zizek, 2000, p. 663) in a manner that opens
an infinitude of ways for the subject with which to intervene and redefine reality’s
coordinates, scope, and meaning. ‘‘Negative magnitude’’ is a Kantian concept sug-
gesting ‘‘a kind of cognitive activity that is neither the spontaneity of discursive
thought not the receptivity of the senses. Rather it is an ‘effort’ of the mind, of
which we are conscious through a feeling’’ (Zinkin, 2012, p. 397). The ‘‘negativity’’
of the absent object thus activates an emotional interpretation that transforms the
subject’s stand toward that object. The melancholic ‘‘absent’’ is treated not merely
as a void, but rather as a potentiality for meaning-making that broadens the range
of semiosis. Melancholy thus generates a ‘‘negative capability’’ that enables the self
to tolerate ‘‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’’ (John Keats as cited by Bion, 1970, p.
125) and constitutes a secured platform for mental growth. In Kleinian terms, this
process may be understood as a positive evolution towards a depressive position
that transcends narcissistic defenses. This positive evolution of absence is not kind
of a default; rather it is conditioned on the ego’s ability of withdrawal (neglect its
fantasy of omnipotence) in order to emerge anew as a novel configuration from its
experiences in reality. Aesthetically speaking, the melancholic tolerance toward the
absence enables enrichment of expressions. In psychological terms, it enables
mental transformation as the self overcomes its ruptures and is continuously recon-
figured through its encounters with reality (for psychoanalytic theorization of this
idea see Bion, 1970, 1989; Ogden, 2004).
Exemplary of these ideas is the story of the great tea master Sen no-Rikyu
(1522–1591), who under the mighty ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi celebrated wabi
sabi aesthetics within the practices of the tea ceremony (Koren, 2008). The
Japanese tea ceremony is a practice that includes the preparation and serving of
tea that, borrowed from Chinese culture, had evolved in conjunction with Zen
development in Japan from the twelfth century onwards (Juniper, 2003). A syno-
nym for wabi sabi, the tea ceremony is the sum of practices that, through immense
concentration on each and every detail, aims to generate a meditating atmosphere
that purifies and elevates the mind (Juniper, 2003). It is told that Rikyu introduced
to the tea ceremony, instead of classical expressions that correspond to Chinese
ideal of wealth (e.g., China ware), subversive ideals such as simplicity, roughness,
asymmetry, and imperfection as the aesthetic ideals that lead to satori.
Rikyu stressed the melancholic, transient, and imperfect nature of things wabi
sabi as the most sublime esthetics. He practiced these ideals through the presenta-
tion of, for example, imperfect ceramic hardware, rough and rustic interior design,
and economy of expression in the ritual’s gestures (Juniper, 2003). Utilizing the
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most elementary of physical objects and gestures, Rikyu managed to shift the focus
of the tea ceremony into a realization of simplicity and acceptance of a symbiotic
relationship between nature and man, as opposed to man’s triumph over nature.
Wabi sabi, quickly acclaiming growing impact and permeating vast fields of arts
and life in Japan, was highly valued as a unique aesthetic and has since transformed
the values of Japanese culture.
However, this turn toward the natural and simple was subversive in the sense
that it challenged conventional aesthetics and could also be interpreted (and actu-
ally was) as a turn towards the ugly, impaired, and less-valued. To Hideyoshi, the
ruler to whom Rikyu was subordinated, who was of peasantry origins and with a
strong predilection for Chinese gorgeousness, the potentially cynical approach of
Rikyu turned to be a sheer threat that eventually led Hideyoshi to order Rikyu’s
ritual suicide (Koren, 2008). Thus, Hideyoshi and Rikyu exemplify contrasted
trajectories: while Hideyoshi demonstrates the narcissistic incapability of tolerance
towards imperfection that in its ultimate fulfillment leads literally to death; Rikyu’s
contribution of wabi sabi esthetics suggests a fruitful alternative. Rikyu demon-
strated how a melancholic stand helps to excavate richness from ‘‘nothingness’’,
celebrating the great potentiality of a humble position towards nature. This inter-
pretation may be of importance to a conceptualization of secrecy in terms of
absence loaded with potentiality.
The challenging and subversive focus of wabi sabi on the absence acknowledges
that reality ‘‘evolves from nothing and devolves back to nothing’’ (Juniper, 2003, p. 1),
hence conditioning satori on melancholic tolerance towards imperfection. Thus
satori, conditioned by melancholy, suggests a vital and crucial alternative to the
angst and despair that stem from natural decadence, and point to the potential
hidden in nothingness. Hence, wabi sabi implies aesthetic evolvement, while its
denial might lead to stagnation and death. Another eminent wabi sabi character-
istic that may help to further clarify this point is asymmetry.

Symmetry and a-symmetry in family secrets and wabi sabi

Wabi sabi holds a critical stand towards any preconceived dogma, style, or idealized
formulation, thus undermining and subverting formalistic cultural rules (Richard,
2000). It strives for a withdrawal of the ego through abandonment of prior definitions,
a move that aims to emancipate the mind from conscious cultural rules, and relocate
its activity ‘‘at the level of the unconscious’’ (Richard, 2000, p. 132). Through subver-
sion of the constituents of culture, wabi sabi advocates esthetics that no longer adheres
to the figurative rules of tradition, aiming to continuously revive it.
The main rationale behind these ‘‘negative’’ esthetics is the wish for attunement
with the lived experience, not through intellectualized and rational reflection, but
rather through a direct and un-mediated involvement (Suzuki, 1969). Wabi sabi
hence conceives symmetry as a conventional aesthetic ‘‘lie’’ that alienates and
detaches from reality for the sake of ‘‘faked’’ beauty. Recalling the above-mentioned
tendency of wabi sabi to acknowledge nature’s constraints upon human endeavor for
Orgad 7

perfection, combined with nature’s transient and flowing essence, symmetry is per-
ceived as being forced coercively upon natural expressions instead of contemplating
their authentic, imperfect, and asymmetric character. Wabi sabi contrasts this futile
attempt to compel a false stagnation of perfection upon nature with asymmetry.
Asymmetry is perceived as a true, humble, and sublime recognition of the vivid
and dynamic nature of real beauty (Koren, 2008).
Asthetics of symmetry is thought of as an artificial man-made convention of
which the aim is to evade any point of imperfection caused by man’s limited control
on nature. The ultimate symmetrical object pretends to capture a static and eternal
point of perfection, thus freezing dynamics of change and challenging nature itself,
since nature implies constant change. Natural dynamics, unless controlled, expand
disorder such that entropy ever grows, and point at dynamic asymmetry as its
ultimate aesthetic expression. Hence, for wabi sabi, asymmetry is perceived as an
expression of the esthetic code of nature as it eliminates artificial-human endeavors
to conceal imperfections, and any symmetrical aesthetic expression is perceived as a
blockage that ‘‘holds the mind hostage’’ (Crowley & Crowley, 2001, p. 80).
According to wabi sabi thought, ‘‘That which is absolutely still or absolutely per-
fect is absolutely dead’’ (Juniper, 2003, p. 7), negating growth and change, while
asymmetry is thought to be liberating this blockage and rendering the mind capable
of growth.
With regard to secrecy and its psychological meaning, it is of great relevance
here to introduce Matte-Blanco’s (1975) formulation of the unconscious in which
symmetry plays a central role. Matte-Blanco conceptualized the unconscious in
terms of symmetrical logic that treats relations as symmetrical, i.e., equalizing
relating objects with each other. The realization of this idea is seen in dreams
where differentiated objects (e.g., daughter, mother, and grandmother) are con-
densed into a unified object (e.g., mother) and are equalized with each other (see
Orgad & Neuman, 2015, for elaboration of this point). The importance of this
conceptualization lies in the realization of symmetry’s role in meaning-making as a
process that constitutes linkages between differentiated elements amidst a shared
symbolic matrix. Nevertheless, given that through symmetrization all objects equal
each other, symmetrization on its own annihilates the capacity to differentiate
between objects, and in its ultimate fulfillment drains objects of meaning, paralyzes
thought, and leads to mental death (Orgad, 2014).
It is asymmetry that introduces to the unconscious the crucial mechanism of
differentiation, thus constituting the very basis of thought. The unconscious com-
bines the two processes together, utilizing the capacity of symmetry to interlink
objects, and the capacity of asymmetry that attributes each object its idiosyncratic
The conceptualization of the unconscious in terms of symmetry and asymmetry
is useful to the interpretation of secrecy. It is shown elsewhere (Orgad, 2014) how
secrecy constitutes processes of symmetrization as it activates kind of an ‘‘anti-
semiosis’’ that attacks meaning-making mechanisms. Hence, it is argued that incap-
acity to tolerate imperfections, and the urge to conceal them, introduces symmetry
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into family dynamics, castrating the power of such dynamics to generate mental
growth. However, in the cultural context mediated through wabi sabi esthetics, it is
suggested that secrecy may be contained as an expression of asymmetry in the sense
of imperfection and absence of knowledge.
Secrecy amidst family dynamics fractures the harmonized and organized distri-
bution of information and challenges a narcissistic quest for perfection and
self-regulation. Oriented towards acceptance of imperfection, the deviance that
asymmetry presents into family life in the form of secrecy introduces disorder
and dynamism that vivify the semiotic capacity of family members. In a cultural
context that acknowledges absences as a source for melancholic contemplation,
secrecy may be understood as a transformative force that tolerates the un-satisfied
need to know, and in response empowers family members with a semiotic capacity
much larger in its scope. To illustrate such a cultural context and describe wabi sabi
in the process of family secrets, an in-depth reading of Japanese novelist Haruki
Murakami’s Kafka on the shore is introduced.

Kafka on the shore: Plot and characters

Kafka on the shore is Murakami’s 2002 novel that tells two intermingled stories.
The odd chapters tell the story of Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old Japanese who runs
away from his father’s home. Kafka departs after living the last nine years with his
father alone, feeling great repulsion towards his father. His mother and sister had
left nine years earlier, not leaving a sign behind; thus Kafka’s journey turns into a
quest that invites possible meetings, reunions, and revelations of concealed secrets.
Kafka leaves under his father’s dark ‘‘oedipal’’ curse/prophecy that one day he will
kill his father and sleep with his mother and sister.
The even chapters tell the story of Satoru Nakata who, as a child, lost his memory
and common sense, but gained the extraordinary ability to communicate with cats,
demonstrating a liminal figure living on the edge between two parallel and separate
worlds—a characteristic of Murakami’s work. The two stories converge through the
novel, as both characters’ journeys bring them to Takamatsu City, a southern city in
Shikoku Island, suggesting both as actually two sides of one character.
A central figure Nakata meets is Johnny Walker—a bizarre figure who has an
important secret: he collects cats, kills them, and eats their beating hearts in order
to collect their souls for a special purpose. For Nakata, the cat-finder who talks
with cats, the situation is unbearable to such an extent that he stabs Johnny Walker
to death—as Johnny Walker wished, and actually stimulated Nakata to do.
This surrealistic episode gains its importance by paralleling the murder of
Kafka’s father. The father, Koichi Tamura, a famous sculptor who earned world-
wide recognition for his work, was stabbed to death in his own house while Kafka
resided in Takamatsu in the Komura library. Paralleling the pairs [Kafka—Koichi
Tamura] and [Nakata—Johnny Walker] speculates on the fulfillment of Kafka’s
oedipal curse.
Orgad 9

Additional important figures are Oshima, a librarian who hosts Kafka in the
Komura library, and Miss Saeki, who is in charge of the library and implied to be
Kafka’s mother. Nakata is helped by a young lorry driver, Hoshino, who helps him
through his journey to Takamatsu.
A typical Murakami style of writing, the novel weaves together surrealistic
dream-like experiences with realistic ones, suggesting a rich foundation for a psy-
chologically oriented interpretation. The next section interprets two prominent
wabi sabi themes found in the text, demonstrating the use of an aesthetic perspec-
tive for a psychological interpretation.

Wabi sabi in Kafka on the shore

Transience and melancholy
Although wabi sabi is being intentionally vague and hard to capture (Juniper,
2003), its presence may be identified as early as the novel’s beginning, stressing
the transformatory nature of life.
The novel opens with what seems to be the voice of Kafka’s alter ego—‘‘a boy
named ‘crow’’’—watching Kafka’s last arrangements before Kafka leaves his
home, and promising Kafka that his forthcoming journey will end up being a
transformative odyssey:

‘‘Once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through . . . But one
thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who
walked in.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 5)

This opening presents straightforward the idea that life is transient, and nothing
stands still. Furthermore, Kafka’s attention is pointed to the fact that ‘‘ . . . [T]his
storm is you. Something inside you . . . ’’ and that one must ‘‘give in to it’’
(Murakami, 2005, p. 4, emphasis in source). This focus links the aesthetic perspec-
tive of wabi sabi with a psychological experience, implying that acknowledgement
of transience dismantles the narcissist fantasy of omnipotence. Namely, one who
gives in to the storm of transience acknowledges that any narcissistic grandiosity
utilized to protect the self is an ephemeral illusion. This idea pervades the book and
appears also at one of the novel’s peaks: a talk between Kafka and Miss Saeki. To
recall, Miss Saeki is implied to be Kafka’s mother, and the pointed talk follows an
intercourse between them that took place the previous night, and shortly before
Saeki’s forthcoming death. Saeki remarks:

‘‘ . . . something’s happening . . . it’s all transforming . . . building up into a stream . . .

What happened between us in your room last night is probably part of that
flow . . . I decided not to force myself to judge anything. If the flow is there, I thought
I’d just let it carry me.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 417, emphases added)
10 Culture & Psychology 0(0)

This excerpt instantiates Zen thought, which is ‘‘concerned with keeping the mind
always in a state of ‘flowing’’’ (Suzuki, 1969, p. 20). In light of the alleged brutal
offensive against the taboo of mother-son intercourse, Saeki’s willingness not to
judge anything denies any preliminary moral imperative, thus draining her secretive
relation to Kafka from its potential destructiveness. Approaching her forthcoming
death, and regardless of the fact that her secrets remain hidden, she does not let
secrecy interrupt their relationship. Transience turns the harmful-but-transient core
of secrets irrelevant as secrets are lost through the flow of life.
Loss is an integral element of transience and paints the novel with melancholic
shades from its very beginning:

‘‘ . . . the sandstorm chases you . . . like some ominous dance with death just
before dawn . . . There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just
fine white sand . . . ’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 4, emphases added)

The inner storm literally threatens Kafka as a ‘‘dance with death’’. Yet, with the
promising ‘‘dawn’’ at hand, it simultaneously designates a transitory experience that
bears hope with it, linking loss and hope as contrasting poles of transience. It is the
capacity to link these contrasting poles that conditions the self’s competency to cope
with the storm of life. In other words, conditioned that the self is not dismantled
through its losses, it may transform and emerge anew out of the ‘‘storm’’.
Interestingly enough, this storm—lacking coordinates of space and time, meta-
phorized as fine sand—resonates with what characterizes the unconscious: the lack of
differentiation and total symmetrization of its elements (see Bion, 1989; Matte-
Blanco, 1975). Namely, it is through Kafka’s entrance into the storm that he gains
access to the unconscious level of experience. Kristeva (1989) focuses on that very
point of the unconscious as a source for meaning-making, metaphorizing the uncon-
scious as illuminating the self like a ‘‘black sun’’. For Kristeva, the black sun repre-
sents melancholia—an acknowledgement of the imperfect position of the self that
‘‘insures the subject’s entrance into the universe of signs and creations’’ (Kristeva,
1989, p. 23). Here, transience and melancholy conjoin to illustrate the path wabi sabi
aesthetics delineate towards Satori (enlightenment). Kafka’s transformatory odyssey
stems from a void, out of nothingness, where there is no sun, direction, or time—just
white, fine, undifferentiated infinite sand—demonstrating the role of nothingness as a
source for growth. To demonstrate, the meaning of nothingness is beautifully illu-
strated through one of the novel’s last scenes, following Saeki’s death.
Saeki is shown throughout the novel writing endlessly, although the content and
aim of her writings are hidden. Following Saeki’s death, and at her own request,
Nakata and Hoshino burn her writings to ashes, after Saeki informed Nakata that it
contained her full biography. After the burning has been completed and ‘‘Hoshino
stamped the ashes into dust’’, letting the wind scatter the remains, Hoshino remarked:

‘‘A bit of shape and form has disappeared from the world, increasing the amount of
nothingness.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 532, emphasis added)
Orgad 11

Saeki’s memories, including her secrets, disappear in smoke—and demonstrate the

ability to increase nothingness. The meaning of that ‘‘nothingness’’ is suggested
later through a meeting between Kafka and the deceased Miss Saeki. That meeting
occurs in a dream-like world, a place lacking time, writings, and memories, from
which Saeki wants Kafka to return to the real world, admitting she is missing from
it now. The detailed conversation then follows:

Kafka: ‘‘I don’t have any world to go back to . . . For me, the idea of a life I left is
meaningless . . . ’’
Miss Saeki: ‘‘But you still have to go back’’
Kafka: ‘‘Even if there’s nothing there? . . . But you’re not there, are you?’’
Miss Saeki: ‘‘No I’m not. I’m not there any more.’’
Kafka: ‘‘What do you want from me if I do go back?’’
Miss Saeki: ‘‘I want you to remember me.’’ (Murakami, 2005, pp. 578–579, emphasis
in source)

Saeki’s will for Kafka to remember her, although her memories disappeared and
turned into ashes and dust, leaves Kafka equipped with a void to live with, acknowl-
edging that ‘‘[A]ll that’s left is an absence that’s like a hollow space.’’ (Murakami,
2005, p. 582). That void consists of burnt memories of a secretive mother. Agreeing
to leave the dream-like world, a place where Kafka could have been with Saeki
forever, means recognizing and accepting an imperfect position and holding of
imperfect memories. That interpretation treats losses as a crucial ‘‘part of what it
means to be alive’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 610).
Although Kafka questions the reason behind going back to an empty
world, Saeki insists to equip him with even greater—but different—nothingness,
one which is encrypted in secretive memories that would keep her alive—as a
source for meaning-making. It is hence suggested that nothingness, given that it
is contained, enables Kafka to increase his resilience by returning to an empty
world through actively participating in making novel meaning of that emptiness.
That brings forth another eminent element of wabi sabi that is present in the

The theme of imperfection

The central role of imperfection in wabi sabi esthetics is already present in the
above discussion, yet there is a short paragraph that epitomizes the theme of
imperfection and its psychological relevance. To recall, in the Komura library
Kafka gets acquainted with Oshima, the librarian. On a ride in Oshima’s sports
car, Oshima puts on a CD with Schubert’s D Major Sonata, and then proceeds to
explain the vitality of the Sonata’s imperfection:

‘‘ . . . it’s as if there’s always something missing . . . Because the sonata itself is imper-
fect . . . works that have a certain imperfection have an appeal for that very
12 Culture & Psychology 0(0)

reason . . . There’s something in it that draws you in . . . the work discovers you . . . If
I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I’m
driving, I might want to close my eyes and die right then and there. But listening to
the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of—that a certain type of
perfection can only be realised through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect.’’
(Murakami, 2005, pp. 144–145, emphases added)

Wabi sabi invites the subject to accept and tolerate imperfection as an opportunity
to acquire ever-evolving perfection, paradoxically incorporating the void with the
innovative, the missing and imperfect with an unachievable perfection. The point is
that imperfection draws one into a quest of inquiries and discoveries that simul-
taneously points to the limits of knowledge and to the ability to transgress these
limits. Acknowledgment of the inability to fully know may bring discoveries of
novel—but ever partial and incomplete—knowledge.
As Oshima points out to Kafka, all the losses accumulated through his life are
not merely a part of being alive, but also enable him ‘‘to make new reference
cards’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 610). Thus, given that hidden secrets are contained
and acknowledged, they may demonstrate Kristeva’s notion of the entrance into
the universe of signs and creations—an active participation in the formation of
new references, linking past and novel experiences, to construct—and ever
widen—a matrix of meanings. Acknowledging losses, accepting the imperfect
position, enables melancholic contemplation that resurrects a lost object (e.g.,
Kafka’s lost mother) from the void by innovatively incorporating it in future
experiences. Wabi sabi then renders secrecy the function of imperfection as a
source for growth, and delineates in the novel an aesthetic frame that invites
an alternative interpretation of secrecy. At this point, it is appropriate to apply
the thesis to one of the novel’s main secrets that concerns the relationship
between Kafka and his father.

Father’s secret: Walking through the labyrinth

The novel opens by describing Kafka running away from his father’s home, sug-
gesting a harsh conflict between them. That conflict is outstanding as the father is
the only biological relative known to Kafka.
Biological relationships are intensively discussed by family secrets literature
(e.g., Berger & Paul, 2008), suggesting concealment of biological origins as result-
ing in psychological burden. However, for Kafka and his father, it is the certainty
and manifestation of their biological relationship that raises a conflict. Kafka’s
conflict about this relationship is first manifested when Kafka gets ready to leave
his father’s home:

‘‘I study my face in the mirror. Genes I inherited from my father and mother . . .
I could probably kill him if I wanted to . . . But there’s no way to erase the DNA
they passed down to me.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 11)
Orgad 13

Kafka, willing to consider killing his own father, presents severe anxiety towards
their biological relatedness, although at this point it is not yet clear why such
anxiety should arise. When later in the novel Oshima notices Kafka’s anxiety
and questions Kafka if there is ‘‘any chance that he’s not your biological
father?’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 267), it is revealed that the father insisted on ground-
ing their biological relatedness beyond any doubt:

‘‘The two of us had a DNA check . . . No doubt about it—biologically we’re father and
son 100 per cent.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 267)

One should question the father’s reason behind such a ‘‘DNA check’’, a reason
which is clarified step by step through Kafka and Oshima’s dialogue. The dialogue
follows a newspaper article Kafka read, reporting his father’s recent murder. The
article describes Kafka’s father, Koichi Tamura, as a famous sculptor who was
worldly renounced for his art. The father’s character, portrayed positively, gives no
hint for Kafka’s severe conflict. Nevertheless, the conversation with Oshima leads
Kafka, for the first time in his life, to reveal the oedipal prophecy his father had
about him:

‘‘Some day you will murder your father and be with your mother.’’ (Murakami, 2005,
p. 265)

Introducing this dark side of their relationship, Kafka then rationalizes his conflict
with his father:

‘‘Maybe he wanted revenge on his wife and daughter who left him . . . to punish
them . . . Through me . . . the dregs left over from creating these [sculptures] he
spread everywhere, like a poison you can’t escape. My father polluted everything he
touched . . . Maybe that’s why my mother abandoned me . . . Because I was
polluted . . . ’’ (Murakami, 2005, pp. 266–267, emphasis added)

Severe guilt, in the form of pollution that separated Kafka from his mother, is
introduced as a possible explanation for Kafka’s conflict with his father.
Furthermore, this sense of guilt is felt by Kafka as an inescapable path delineated
for him by his father:

‘‘ . . . it feels like everything’s been decided in advance—that I’m following a path

somebody had already mapped for me . . . the harder I try, the more I lose the sense
of who I am . . . I guess he wanted me to know I was one of the works he’d
created . . . finished and signed.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 262 ff.)

Kafka cannot avoid either being his father’s son, or feeling as his polluted sculp-
ture, destined to spread destruction. This may explain Kafka’s conflict and repul-
sion towards his father. It also demonstrates the psychological burden of secrecy on
14 Culture & Psychology 0(0)

family members. Kafka, who does not know either his mother’s or sister’s identity,
or the events that led to their abandonment, experiences anxiety towards his father
and also towards new figures potentially capable of being his mother or sister.
Detached from any secure base, Kafka is eventually led to lose the sense of who
he is. However, while Kafka is able to explain his inescapable sense of being
polluted, his explanation does not match the father’s motives—why should the
father ‘‘curse’’ his own son in that manner? What made the father ‘‘sculpture’’
his son in such a deterministic and violent way? What is it in the father’s deeds
that ‘‘pollutes’’?
Kafka admits his father was a riddle for him, pointing to the father’s hidden

‘‘Maybe he had to [pollute everything]. Maybe it’s just part of his make-up. Anyway,
I get the feeling he was connected to something very unusual.’’ [Then Oshima replies:]
‘‘Something beyond good and evil. The source of power you might call it.’’
(Murakami, 2005, p. 267, emphasis in source)

It appears that Kafka copes with a concealed father, yet a powerful one who, as
Oshima testifies, is ‘‘original, provocative, powerful. Uncompromising . . . Most
definitely the real thing’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 267). The father seems to be a
very convincing figure who acts on people’s minds through his art, implementing
wabi sabi’s imperative to challenge conventions as the way to achieve truth. Yet,
besides Mr. Tamura’s coercive power, there is not even a clue to what it is in the
father’s character that pollutes Kafka. Left without a further hint in that direction
along the rest of the novel, it is useful to explore Mr. Tamura’s parallel figure,
Johnny Walker.
As is indicated above, Johnny Walker (from now on referred to as JW) is a
bizarre figure whom Nakata meets on his search for a lost cat. To remind,
Nakata parallels Kafka, hence his meeting with JW images an alleged meeting
between Kafka and his father. Nakata is shocked to reveal that JW kills cats for
a special aim:

‘‘I’m killing them to collect their souls, which I use to create a special kind of flute.
And when I blow that flute it’ll let me collect even larger souls . . . and make an even
bigger flute . . . so large it’ll rival the universe.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 184)

This megalomaniac and bizarre episode becomes even more challenging

towards the novel’s end, when JW explains his aim to the ‘‘boy named crow’’
(Kafka’s alter ego, hence, again, it simulates an interaction between Kafka and
his father):

‘‘This flute is beyond any world’s standards of good and evil . . . I’m a man entirely
without prejudices, like history . . . unbiased. And since I am, I can transform into a
kind of a system.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 569)
Orgad 15

JW and Mr. Tamura represent the Demiurge—the mythological Creator. They are
both creators who construct unique systems that parallel each other in a very
unique and important way—both utterly contradict wabi sabi’s fundamental
themes. JW’s ‘‘flute’’ is aimed to ‘‘rival the universe’’. This fantasy of rebelling
against/replacing god and his creation suggests narcissistic grandiosity as an ultim-
ate negation of imperfection. JW drains lives as he subjugates souls in a plan to
collect an ever larger number of souls, in a very similar way to the convincing
power of Mr. Tamura’s art. Analogous to JW’s flute, Mr. Tamura’s art represents
an inescapable force that pollutes anything it touches, attracting universal attention
and convincing in its ‘‘trueness’’. Central to our discussion is Koichi Tamura’s
specific art—sculpture—which is the ultimate negation of transience. Sculptures
are designed to defeat the flow of time, and, very much like JW’s flute, represent
drained lives. The static sculptured image is the complete opposite of the living
soul, thus suggesting for the first time a link to Kafka’s sense of threat. Kafka’s
sense of being dead and drained is put into words very clearly:

‘‘To my father I’m probably nothing more than one of his sculptures. Something he
could fix or break as he sees fit.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 266)

The paralleling of Koichi Tamura and JW, and Kafka’s anxiety of being ‘‘sculptured’’,
broken, and drained of his sense of self, suggest that the father’s art threatens to drain
souls and constitute ‘‘hollow men’’—a T. S. Elliott’s metaphor taken by Murakami to
designate people ‘‘devoid of imagination’’ who are trying to ‘‘force you to do what you
don’t want to’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 239). It could now be understood that Kafka
might have interpreted his father not only as coercive, but also as threatening his
ability to live. The father’s art of ‘‘sculpture’’ delineated for Kafka a path of a
‘‘hollow’’ character, drained and deprived of imagination; hence it could be under-
stood to generate severe anxiety in Kafka.
This, of course, is an analysis at a meta-level of the novel. Kafka himself is
unaware of JW’s figure and has no interaction with him at all. Hence Kafka’s
reasons for a sense of pollution are yet not introduced at the intersubjective level
of his relationship with his father. A clue in this direction may be found in the
article that reported the father’s murder. The article describes the father’s art and
excavates a central theme, not elaborated so far, directly relevant to his relationship
with Kafka. The following excerpt concerns the central metaphor of Mr. Tamura’s

‘‘His chief theme was the human subconscious, and his sculptures . . . challenged the
conventional . . . His best-known work was his major ‘Labyrinth’ series, which explored,
through an uninhibited expression of the imagination, the beauty and inspiration found
in the meandering contours of labyrinths.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 259, emphases added)

With a sheer contrast to sculpture as an art that constitutes ‘‘hollow men devoid of
imagination’’, the Labyrinth epitomizes imagination’s role as a path of meandering
16 Culture & Psychology 0(0)

contours that explores ‘‘beauty and inspiration’’. The ‘‘meandering contours of

labyrinth’’ involve complexity, uncertainty, and cryptic dream-like thinking
(Attali, 1999), and symbolize a twofold meaning—that of the destructive/creative
symbolic order. Attali (1999) interprets the labyrinth as a cultural symbol that
combines a ‘‘castrative’’ and emancipative cultural power. The labyrinth threatens,
on the one hand, that you will ‘‘get lost’’, and on the other hand, promises trans-
formation and growth through intense and deep contemplation.
According to Murakami, ‘‘The principle for labyrinth is inside you. And that
correlates to the labyrinth outside’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 461, emphasis in source),
suggesting that Mr. Tamura, through his secrets and art, had delineated for Kafka
a labyrinth to walk through. This labyrinth, in the first place, threatened Kafka and
led him to erect walls of perfection around him in a narcissistic defensive act:

‘‘I’ve built a wall around me, never letting anybody inside, and trying not to venture outside
myself . . . My muscles were getting hard as steel, even as I grew more withdrawn . . . I knew
I’d have to be tougher than anybody . . . ’’ (Murakami, 2005, pp. 9–10)

Under the pressure of his family secrets, which he could not explain and that
pushed him to get ready to run away from his own home, Kafka aspires to per-
fection, in the form of supreme strength and hermetic isolation. This demonstrates
how the ‘‘labyrinth’’ of Kafka’s family secrets generated in him anxiety that led to
withdrawal of his ego. Yet, Kafka’s odyssey through the labyrinth acted as a
transformative process that invited Kafka to rebel against the narcissistic hubris
he had enacted. The labyrinth, designating ‘‘a language before writing’’ (Attali,
1999, p. 15), enables an entrance to the ‘‘semiotic’’ mode (Kristeva, 2014) that
transgresses mere signification and acknowledges the unconscious base of meaning.
Namely, through his quest, Kafka learns the limitations inherent to conscious
rational thinking and his inherent incapability to decipher and understand the
secrets of his parents. Kafka’s walking through the labyrinth teaches him that
putting things into words ‘‘will destroy any meaning’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 581),
and that in art, as in secrecy, there is surplus meaning that cannot be found or
expressed through mere symbolism. The gap between symbolism and meaning is
very clearly put into words by Oshima:

‘‘Symbolism and meaning are two separate things . . . Artists are those who can evade
the verbose.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 320)

Kafka learns to admit the power of art’s ambiguous language, the limits of reason
and logic, and the complexity found in life which cannot be put into words if its
meaning is to be met. Through acknowledgment of this imperfect position Kafka
acquires a melancholic stand:

‘‘The strength I’m looking for isn’t the kind where you win or lose [a narcissistic
position]. I’m not after a wall that’ll repel power coming from the outside.
Orgad 17

What I want is the kind of strength to be able to absorb that outside power . . . The
strength to quietly endure things—unfairness, misfortune, sadness, mistakes, misunder-
standings.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 414, emphases in source and added)

This stand was achieved through exploration of the labyrinth that had been deli-
neated for Kafka by his father. The father’s labyrinth, characterized as provoca-
tive, uncompromising, and challenging, posited Kafka in-front of a dialectical and
paradoxical will of his father: Kafka was obliged to enter a path delineated for him
by his father as an act of determinism and coercion; at the same time this will was
potentially an act of emancipation, an invitation to rebel against the predestined
path itself. This will encouraged Kafka to recruit his imagination in order to reveal
‘‘the beauty and inspiration found in the meandering contours of labyrinths.’’
Through the path that appeared to be a labyrinth Kafka was invited, and led, to
acknowledge that ‘‘in dreams begins responsibility’’ (Yeats, cited by Murakami,
2005, p. 172). It may be interpreted that Mr. Tamura’s will for Kafka was a
challenging stand as a necessary step towards responsible maturity, admitting the
obliged rebellion of the son/sculpture against his father/sculptor. This was Mr.
Tamura’s call for Kafka to project ‘‘a beam of intense darkness’’ (Grotstein,
2007) to illuminate the unconscious level of his experience, thus recruiting imagin-
ation as a crucial device that subordinates the ‘‘unknown’’ to a responsible
This interpretation is further strengthened through an interesting symmetriza-
tion between Kafka, JW, and Koichi Tamura, all three rebelling against a coercing
symbolic order: Kafka rebels against his father, JW rebels against god and his
universe, Mr. Tamura rebels against culture. In another symmetrical analogy,
Nakata stabs JW to JW’s own will, suggesting that the act of murdering the
father was something the father wanted, even ordered his son to do. The father’s
will to be murdered is a paradoxical act of ordering obedience and rebelliousness,
suggesting a different interpretation for Kafka’s conflict with his father. According
to this interpretation, Kafka experiences a separation-individuation conflict—he
does not merely run away from his home, he stops to take with him some of his
father’s belongings: an old gold lighter, a folding knife, a mobile phone, and
money—things of his father’s that he considers ‘‘bare necessities’’ (Murakami,
2005, p. 7). Kafka eventually fulfills the act of identification with his father through
the intercourse with Miss Saeki. However, Kafka simultaneously fights for his
autonomy (runs away and ‘‘murders’’ his father), epitomizing an inherent tension
found in the realm of art between an author and his creation, in the realm of social
life between a father and his son, and in the realm of culture between the symbolic
order and the act of meaning-making. Kafka highlights this tension while he fights
for his freedom, but still amidst unsecure attachments that were damaged by
secrecy. It is suggested that in this case, secrecy is a twofold path. On the one
hand, secrecy leads to castration—Kafka’s sense of loss through his secretive life.
But, on the other hand, secrecy suggests the emancipatory effect of labyrinthine
thinking, sustained by wabi sabi aesthetic values of transience and imperfection,
18 Culture & Psychology 0(0)

enabling Kafka to rebel against his father/creator/culture in a quest after an

authentic and personal way of being.
As an ending point, it is suggested that Kafka also challenges a symmetrization
that characterizes the relationship of the sculptor/father and his art/son. A sculp-
ture/son is symmetrical to its sculptor/creator (father) as a pure projection of the
latter. Thus the analogy of being a sculpture implies ‘‘mental death’’ not only in
the sense of being still and static. It characterizes the sculpture’s relationship with
the sculptor as a symmetrization that drains an authentic and idiosyncratic sense of
self, suggesting a source for Kafka’s anxiety. The act of ‘‘murdering the father’’,
and of deviating from his pre-delineated path, emancipates Kafka from an obliged
identification and enables him to admit not only his separateness from his father,
but also his inherent inability to decipher his family secrets. Incorporation of such
asymmetry into family dynamics enables Kafka to acknowledge his responsibility
in living. Oshima, the librarian, images this responsibility as a private library
comprised of accumulating ineffable memories:

‘‘Every one of us is losing something . . . Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings

we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our
heads . . . there’s a little room where we store those memories . . . we have to keep
making new reference cards . . . In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private
library.’’ (Murakami, 2005, p. 610)

This ‘‘privacy’’ implies Kafka’s responsibility for, and the necessity of, an ongoing
interpretational task, suggesting a source for the ‘‘semiotic instinct’’ (Neuman,
2009) that drives the human act of meaning-making. This asymmetry brings
forth the importance of wabi sabi as a symbolic matrix that shifts the focus of
the mind from rational interpreting onto ‘‘dreaming’’ (Ogden, 2003) the uncon-
scious part of experiences, enabling a wider range for meaning-making and mental
growth. It thus demonstrates the transformation Kafka experienced into a mature
adult, freed from the castrating power of his family secrets, enabled to take respon-
sibility and incorporate these secrets—in his own way—into his future life.

Asthetics is not a trivial starting point towards a psychological conceptualization of
family secrets. This paper shows the role wabi sabi ideals play in constraining and
orienting the interpretation of family secrets’ meaning. The following points sum-
marize the importance of this interdisciplinary approach.

Aesthetics and psychology: Order, interlinking, and meaning-making

The aesthetic experience involves the interrelatedness of perceptions, emotions, and
meanings (Civitarese, 2014) in a holistic act of meaning-making. This means that
aesthetics act as a psychological mechanism that constrains the mind and orients
Orgad 19

its functioning. An esthetic perspective interlinks separate elements of experience

such that their relationships bear meaning, as is shown in the case of Sen no-Rikyu
the tea master. To recall, Rikyu presented to the tea ceremony such ideals as
transience, melancholy, and imperfection. The emerging wabi sabi esthetics
appeared to be limiting a narcissistic aspiration to perfection, and acknowledging
the imperfect position of man in life. Thus the role of absence in the ongoing
process of meaning-making acquired its importance, driving man towards a ‘‘semi-
otic’’ mode of being, incorporating unconscious elements of experience into con-
scious thinking and acting. In other words, the esthetics of wabi sabi constitute a
symbolic matrix that links two simultaneous modes of being (unconscious and
consciousness), thus enriching the capacity for meaning-making.

Aesthetics as a cultural mediator

As a symbolic matrix, esthetics exists and acts within social systems, and recipro-
cally constitutes these systems through the use of socially shared signs (Mitchell,
1988). This shifts esthetics from an intra-subjective to an intersubjective level of
meaning-making. The individual subject hence never acts in isolation, but always
relates his meanings to a cultural context, which is mediated as an ‘‘esthetic para-
digm’’ (Civitarese, 2014, p. 1060). In our case, it is wabi sabi ideals that mediate
tolerance towards the unknown and the imperfect, thus transforming secrecy from
a deficiency into a generative source for curiosity (Valsiner, 2007). It is through his
journey that Kafka’s growing capacity to tolerate losses and imperfections leads
him to adopt a melancholic stand through which to extract meaning from his
secrets and losses. The emerging cultural-esthetic frame helps Kafka to confront
and contain his ‘‘perforated’’ secretive biography.

Wabi sabi: An alternative and culturally grounded approach

to family secrets
Wabi sabi esthetics grounds the meaning of secrecy in a specific cultural context and
enables a careful qualitative inquiry that delineates secrecy’s formation. A step-by-step
analysis of the construction of secrecy’s meaning in Kafka’s family excavates the
sources for Kafka’s conflict with his father, suggesting that the esthetic paradigm he
develops through his journey enables him to use the ‘‘holes’’ in his familial biography
as a source for mental growth.
Secrecy, as ‘‘holes’’ that rupture the familial narrative, evokes ‘‘hallucinatory’’ think-
ing (Orgad, 2015). Hallucination in this conceptualization detaches the self from
‘‘logical’’ and ‘‘rational’’ shared reality—since shared familial reality is lacking—and
drives the self to invent an alternative one that renders the self ‘‘detached from time and
space’’ (Ferenczi, 1985, p. 36). This reasoning assumes the necessity of ‘‘empirical’’
concrete connectedness to time and space, based upon rationalism.
However, wabi sabi transgresses this limit of rationalism and links the process of
meaning-making to the unconscious level of experience. The ‘‘semiotic’’ mode
20 Culture & Psychology 0(0)

bridges the gap between mere symbolism and meaning, positing secrecy as a poten-
tially challenging process. The above interpretation suggests that secrecy challenges
the symbolic order and introduces tension into the relationship between sculptor
and sculpture/father and son/culture and individual. This tension demands that the
artist admits that his own creation necessarily acquires an autonomous existence as
it enters the ever-evolving social matrix of meaning-making. It simultaneously
demands that the sculpture/son transforms to a mature, responsible, and active
participator in, and creator of, the ‘‘in-between’’ semiotic space that mediates cul-
ture (Bakhtin, 1990; Neuman, 2003). In this sense wabi sabi presents an alternative
interpretation that conceptualizes secrecy as a ‘‘potential space’’ (Khan, 1978) that
treats secrecy not only as a threat, but also as a potentiality. Secrecy is understood
as a space that enables interpretative processes of meaning-making, leaning on the
unconscious level of experience. In acknowledgment of the ever occurring inter-
pretational activity, Laplanch and Pontalis (as cited in Khan, 1978, p. 112)
view interpretation as ‘‘a way for the subject to escape from the present ‘demands
of reality’ into an imaginary past’’. Concerning the role of the unconscious/
‘‘semiotic’’, it may be put such that wabi sabi is a way for the subject to escape
from the present ‘‘demands’’ of culture, into an imaginary future, thus liberating
the mind in its authentic quest for truth. This is a moral view that shifts the focus of
secrecy from escapism to creativity, highlighting the contribution of a culturally
grounded approach to family secrets that enables viewing secrecy as a source for
mental growth.
This paper presents a novel interpretation of family secrets as a psycho-socio-
cultural phenomenon. Considering this conceptualization of family secrets, it is
more than required to approach it through an interdisciplinary perspective.
Drawing on psychoanalysis, psychology, cultural psychology, and semiotics, this
paper tries to focus on the membranes that link these differentiated levels of the
human experience—the intra level of the individual psyche, the inter-level of the
socio-cultural human group, and the ‘‘meta’’-level of the semiotic experience—and
interlink differentiated experiences into a coherent, meaningful, and evolving
human experience.
Family secrets are re-conceptualized here in a manner that highlights
their contextual resources. Nevertheless, this paper should be read as an example
of the importance of approaching the psycho-cultural arena through a diverged
and multi-focused perspective. This paper suggests an interrelatedness of discip-
lines that transgresses the limits of each one, and recruits their reciprocal virtues to
conclude an additional understanding of the human experience. It is hence a try to
shed light on the specific case of family secrets, and also on the meta-theoretical
matter of the research methods appropriate for this kind of research.

The author would like to thank Prof. Y. Neuman, the anonymous reviewers, and the editor
for their constructive reading of the paper and helpful comments.
Orgad 21

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article.

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Author biography
Yariv Orgad, is a researcher with an interdisciplinary background. He received his
BA in History from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and had recently submitted
his PhD dissertation at Ben-Gurion University, studying Psychoanalysis, Semiotics
and Cultural Psychology. Formerly a kindergarten teacher, he also works as a
lecturer and pedagogic instructor in the field of early-age education. Integrating
ideas from psychoanalysis, semiotics, and cultural psychology, Mr Orgad had
recently published papers about the meaning of symmetrization in kindergarteners’
dreams, and about family secrets (Orgad, 2014; Orgad, 2015; Orgad & Neuman,