Fishing in a Bathtub

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Here, have some flash-fiction from seventy years ago.

You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub. A doctor with ideas as to psychiatric treatments asked him “if they were biting,” to which he received the harsh reply: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.” That story belongs to the baroque type. But in it can be grasped quite clearly to what a degree the absurd effect is linked to an excess of logic. Kafka’s world is in truth an indescribable universe in which man allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come of it.

—Albert Camus on Kafka, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien)

The bathtub story starts from an absurd proposition (fishing in bathtub).

The doctor assumes the patient has taken seriously the first part of the proposition (fishing), so proceeds to play along by asking whether the fishes are biting.

The patient, however, latches onto the second part of the proposition (bathtub) and is insulted by the doctor’s lack of intelligence.

The logic of both participants isn’t at fault, though the disjunction stemming from the initial absurdity is. At a basic level this paradoxical repartee is easily inserted into the core of any incident. Somehow it doesn’t fail to perplex every time.

  • Man is talking to the wall. Friend asks whether the wall is talking back. Man responds: “It’s a wall, how can it talk back?”
  • Woman in a café is teaching her dog to read. Kindly waiter asks whether the dog has learned any of the letters yet. Woman responds: “It’s a dog, you idiot.“
  • Boy is writing dead grandma a letter. Mother asks whether he expects grandma to reply with a letter. Boy rolls eyes and responds: “Of course not, grandma is dead.”

Even though I just wrote those three examples, holding their meaning in my head makes me spin like Kafka’s top.

Continue reading

Running After Tops

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There goes a philosopher running after a children’s top. His glee! His ardour! Look how the top spins and wriggles away from him. Now he’s caught it—it’s stopped spinning—he’s inspecting it, grimacing, disgusted, and throwing it to the ground in disappointment.

Oh look another top!

Off he runs after the toy as enthusiastically as after the first. Now he’s caught it, he’s inspecting it…

This inveterate optimist is of Kafka’s imagining (from his short text The Top), and his behaviour is justified: For he believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. This character is more allegorical placeholder than philosopher.

But I won’t interpret the allegory.

Over the past weeks I’ve had my say regarding Kafka’s work, so for the next few posts I’ll let the experts speak: Anne Carson, Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, and Jorge Luis Borges.

A well written commentary intended for a general audience doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with the primary source beforehand. However, if upon enjoying the commentary you decide to go and make yourself familiar with said primary source—all the better! The four authors above reignited my interest in Kafka, and perhaps they will do the same for you. Continue reading

Inspired by Myth: Modernising

https://www.wikiart.org/en/ivan-aivazovsky/sea-view-by-moonlight-1878/

Sea view by Moonlight by Ivan Aivazovsky (1878)

 

“The sea anemones need counting.”

“May I be assigned the Mediterranean section?”

“Same as every year. Here’s the conch. Put one white speck of sand for each healthy specimen, and one black speck for each diseased specimen. You have two days to bring back the conch to the records department.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No frolicking about with Triton.”

“Certainly not, sir.”

Poseidon watched the nymph swim off, giggling. Poseidon envied her—all he ever did was sit in his throne room, at the big rock slab of a desk tallying numbers and writing up reports. He sighed. Better get on with it.

“Give me some more ink, will you?” he said.

The squid perching on his shoulder filled his pen. Continue reading

Inspired by Myth: Alternative Ending

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heinrich_fueger_1817_prometheus_brings_fire_to_mankind.jpg

Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich Füger (1817)

 

Pity the mortals, for they are cold.

Of all the powerful beings populating Greek myth, Prometheus always seemed the most generous towards our kind. According to some sources he moulded the first men from clay. According to most sources he stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. Crafty, haughty, but indomitable in his creative pursuit, Prometheus is perhaps more of a human ideal than we wish to admit.

(Mary Shelly does admit it in the title of her book Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus.)

For his crimes, Prometheus, the titan, was strung up naked on a cliff in the Caucasus and sentenced to an eternity of having his (regenerating) liver torn daily by an eagle. Frostbite and cold, and continuous pain was the price he paid for our warmth and grace.

According to the legends. Continue reading

Inspired by Myth: Reinterpretation

Feathers are the soul of the wind.

To fly, you just need wings, gleaming, beautiful, lighter than the thickest ribbons of air so you can take off, heavier than the thinnest clouds so you don’t stumble upon the pathways of the gods.

So the man believed. Man, inventor, father.

The wings were almost ready, the primary feathers sown into place, the secondary feathers glued with wax.

“There.” The man tightened the strap on his son’s right arm, before adjusting his own. The boy quaked for fear of heights.

“What can be more exciting than this,” the man said, “father and son, taking to the clouds, escaping all those guards Minos has sent to secure the coast?”

The boy nodded, hardly reassured.

They launched themselves from the highest Cretan cliffs at noon, when no archer dared watch Helios drive his blazing chariot across the sky.

The man went first, confident, eager to feel the air carry him. He glanced back, and saw his son steadily gliding in his wake. Good.

They flew.

Shy, inexperienced, and wary of his large wings, the boy chose a steady course between heaven and sea, not looking up, not looking down, even when his father swerved and looped, showing off his flying skills. How he soars, my father! He’s so skilful and I’m so clumsy. One day, I’ll make him proud. The boy glided on.

Disaster crept upon them, stealthily, like a lion stalking a flock of sheep.

The boy noticed a small feather slip from his father’s wings. Then another. All that soaring and acrobatics was making the wax melt. He shouted a warning.

“It’s nothing,” his father said, though he too now chose to fly a cautious middle-course.

But the melting had started, the boy saw, and it could not be stopped. Unless…

Without a word, the boy flew up and up, until he was right above his father, flying at the same speed, providing a constant shade for the melting wax on his father’s wings. It hardened; no more feathers separated.

As they neared an island, the father rejoiced. They had made it. “Son! You see, my wings have not melted after all.” He turned.

Nothing, nobody.

Down below, his son’s body bobbed on the wine-dark surface of the Aegean Sea. Continue reading

Imaginary Creatures: Beautiful Frankensteins

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubism

Portrait of Picasso by Juan Gris (1912)

 

A 1000-piece puzzle is not a project for Frankenstein. The pieces were cut from a unified starting picture; the problem was deliberately made and has a predictable, well-fitting solution. No, a worthy project requires the invention or the discovery of something previously inconceivable.

Like stitching together pieces of flesh and reanimating them (science).

Like connecting pieces of metal and animating them (engineering).

Like layering paint or notes or movements and binding them (art).

Like assembling concepts and words and creating a coherent story world, character, or creature (writing).

I mean it in all in a positive way.

Credibility and resonance is achieved by using what’s around us:

  • Story worlds recycle and recombine common tropes in new ways. (Few go ahead and do the Tolkienesque thing of inventing new languages as well.)
  • Interesting characters are made up of different already-observed personality traits: take a bit from Aunt Veronica, a bit from Ruth the next door neighbour, a bit from Mum, together with a generous dollop of yourself, then mix with convenient imaginary glue till the gallimaufry congeals into an appetising dessert.
  • New creatures are often forged through similar borrowings; though, unlike with shape-shifters and cross-breeds where the number of sourced parts or shifts is limited, the creatures I call beautiful frankensteins come from so many sources their existence is as unexpected as it is baffling.

Continue reading

Imaginary Creatures: Cross-Breeds

https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Q17494958#/media/File:Joseph_blanc,_perseo,_1869.JPG

Perseus riding Pegasus by Joseph Blanc (1869) — Pegasus has a braid in his tail!

 

Moonlit blue-tinted night, billowy curtains flicking edges of open terrace doors, impending danger for two sky-gazing protagonists. In swoops a softly neighing white horse with wings so large they trail on the ground when folded.

My first memory of Pegasus.

Despite the grainy TV picture and the obviously unrealistic set of what must have been an ancient Hollywood film, I only remember the awe. The magic! A flying horse, whoever thought of that?

Afterwards, catching a glimpse of a flying lion in a show about Narnia somehow didn’t do it for me. Not to say that Aslan is comparable to Pegasus, but perhaps there is a little idea-bulb in every child’s mind belonging to winged animals, and it can only be turned on once: first-imagined best-imagined?

https://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-moreau/the-sphinx-1864/

The Sphinx by Gustave Moreau (1864)

Fictional cross-breeds, or hybrids, are produced by mating or creatively putting together a few different species. They’ve populated humankind’s imagination as long as shape-shifters.

I won’t attempt a classification—Wikipedia is thorough. However, since I mentioned horses and lions, here’s a taster for their hybrids.

With lion bodies:

  • The Great Sphinx of Giza (built c. 2550 BCE) has a human head, but the mythological sphinx also has wings.
  • The manticore, a fantastic man-eater creature from Persian mythology, has a human head and a scorpion’s tail (recorded by Pliny the Elder c. 70 CE).
  • The lamassu, an Assyrian protective deity, has a human head and wings (first recorded in 3000 BCE).
  • The Lion of Venice has wings (erected in the 12th century).
  • The griffin has the head and wings of an eagle (traced back to before 3000 BCE).

Continue reading

Imaginary Creatures: Shape-Shifters

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganymede_(mythology)

The Abduction of Ganymede (ca. 1650), by Eustache Le Sueur

Fantasy bears many children and loves them all, heads, tails, wings, jaws, beaks, two legs, four legs, five and an input console. Magic and technology marry to make aliens; words (e)merge to make new monikers. A complete classification of templates may be impossible, but spotting patterns can be fun as a reader and helpful as a writer.

I’ve picked three basic categories: shape-shifters, cross-breeds, and beautiful frankensteins. Three is a fairytale ideal number. Also, Kafka’s complete short stories provide three fun examples.

Today: the shape-shifters.

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Dracula and the vampiric model come to mind: man, cloud of bats, mist. The fictional traits of blood-suckers in fiction are tabulated extensively on Wikipedia.

The w-s yield werewolves, wizards, and witches.

Evil masquerading as good or the duality of the two is well-suited to flipping between forms like in Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

More recently there’s Pennywise the Clown form Stephen King’s It, Mystique from the X-Men Comics, Terminator from Hollywood, and all manner of decanting from body to body, like in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.

However, mythologies did it first.  Continue reading

Kafka’s Invisibles

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Invisibility is a superpower. 

Tolkien’s One Ring and Harry Potter’s Cloak of Invisibility render the wearer unseen by conventional methods. Much before that, the Ancient Greeks had gods who surrounded their favourite heroes in mists and clouds so that they could pass unchallenged.

Of course, all superpowers come with a price, and occasionally end in tragedy. H. G. Wells’s invisible man, the protagonist of his eponymous novel, struggles to control his ability, so much so it becomes more of a hindrance than a help.

But what of invisibility in daily life?

It’s actually quite prevalent, and it comes about in two flavours: as a result of being ignored, or as a result of ignorance. The former implies intention and a deliberate act, the latter an accident and blameless innocence—the middle ground is shaded by degrees of intentional ignorance.

(Unsurprisingly, both ignore and ignorance come from the negation of the same Latin stem gnō-, meaning to know, but perhaps surprisingly ignorance is the older word by a few centuries.)

Franz Kafka’s collection of short stories includes at least four very different explorations of invisibility, of which only Rejection was published during his lifetime. Here they are. Continue reading

Kafka’s Hunger Artist

Fasting would surely come into fashion again at some future date, yet that was no comfort to those living in the present. What, then, was the hunger artist to do?

—Franz Kafka, The Hunger Artist (1922); translated by Will and Edwin Muir.

Fasting has come into fashion. Today it’s called dieting.

In moderation, it’s vaunted as a healthful activity. Taken to an extreme, it’s a debilitating mental illness. Either way, dieting is usually triggered by peer pressure, and since our bodies are our visible, measurable exteriors, all those peers will have an opinion which will affects us.

To put it bluntly: losing weight quickly becomes a performance art.

Kafka’s Hunger Artist explores what this performance art means without going into the physical aspect. Sure, bodies existed in the early 20th century, but calorie-counting, bodybuilding, and pilates weren’t the fad. So instead, the premise is entirely absurdist à la Kafka, but the debilitation, the existential angst, and the struggle of the protagonist with the world (and with himself) are all recognisably modern. Continue reading

Kafka’s Harrow

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Kafka has fallen out of favour in the modern age. 

The German-speaking Bohemian author, Franz Kafka (1883–1924), I mean. 

In contrast, the software, Apache Kafka, is prominently favoured in nine out of the first ten Google results for the search string Kafka.

Perhaps rightly so. After all, software is designed to aid not to befuddle, and to disperse existential angst not to replicate it on paper. Although, it’s a toss-up which of computer-esque or Kafkaesque better describes the alienation of man from mankind.

Since computers are all the rage, I’ll favour the “underdog” Kafka on this blog.

Image of the man?

I expected the search engine to throw up pictures of a human-sized beetle with a rotting apple stuck in its carapace. Even after having read five hundred pages of Vintage Kafka that contains all of his shorter works, I still identify the author with his novella The Metamorphosis. Or rather, with the protagonist, travelling salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin-beetle-creature.

The beetle is nasty; his story is sad.

The revulsion, the absurdity, the helplessness of this ungeheueres Ungeziefer (the German original helps spur the imagination), the ostracism that follows, and the final sinking into irrelevancy—they’re the sequence of events anyone on social media dreads. What happens if one day you wake up “ugly”, “disabled”, “different”, and ultimately incapable of communicating with the rest of society?

So despite his poor performance in search results, Kafka is still germane today. Continue reading

Wittkop’s Necrophiliac

This post stands in the controversial shadow of its title.

You have been warned.

Quote: Sex is spoken of in all forms except one. Necrophilia isn’t tolerated by governments nor approved by questioning youth. Necrophiliac love: the only sort that is pure. Because even amor intellectualis — that great white rose —waits to be paid in return. No counterpart for the necrophiliac in love, the gift that he gives of himself awakens no enthusiasm.

—Gabrielle Wittkop, The Necrophiliac (1972); translated by Don Bapst.

Should every gap in the literary offering be plugged with a high-brow treatment?

I’d say no, because every is too broad a requirement. But some gaps do need the occasional thoughtful contribution. Necrophiliac was Wittkop’s, and she wasn’t shy about it.

Rewind a couple of centuries, and we find one of her literary forefathers: Marquis de Sade. He plugged a gap of his own, but in a savage, largely unpalatable, and tedious manner. For example, his 120 Days of Sodom runs close to four-hundred pages, and just the opening few contain enough brazen graphic violence to put off most people.

The Necrophiliac isn’t like that. It’s ninety pages, written in first person, from the point of view of a sensitive, poetically inclined protagonist. Readers always have to work harder to condemn the narrator in whose head they ride—Wittkop knew what she was doing. Continue reading

Siren, Man, Mandrake Stem

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Metaphors are charming, scenic shortcuts to multiple layers of meaning. But they’ve got a dark side that scares people or perhaps doesn’t scare them enough—depending on how you look at it.

For example:

Leave no stone unturned.

Once fresh, but now clichéd metaphors are best avoided in creative writing. (Dead metaphors in the sense of those whose meaning has shifted are something else and can, with care, be put to good use.) 

We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.

Malaphors blend two phrases or idioms. They’re humorous, but hardly appropriate in an original piece. (The label itself is a portmanteau, or a blend, of metaphor and malapropism.)

Her learning capacity towers over yours; I bet you she can bridge any knowledge gap in under a month.

Mixed metaphors are more general malaphors, but without the humour. They combine different metaphors in incompatible ways: how can a capacity tower, or then be used to bridge? Sure, we get the message, but the clash draws attention to itself.

Clichéd metaphors can be avoided by not writing down what first comes to mind and malaphors are more often spoken mistakes than deliberate constructions. Which leaves mixed metaphors. They may not be as obviously jarring as my example. In fact, the more complex or original or dense your metaphors, the more difficult it is to judge whether what you’ve written coheres. 

Getting the opinions of a few friends helps.

Studying examples packed with metaphors also helps. So let’s do that. Continue reading