Burn the Manuscript

In the days before the internet people used more ephemeral media for writing, like paper, like parchment, like papyrus. If you wanted to destroy your work, you would chop it up and commit it to flames. You could also delegate the task, though in modern terms that would be like handing someone your phone and asking them to delete your notes.

Kafka died a month shy of his forty-first birthday, in June 1924. Most of his unpublished work he left to his friend Max Brod with a final request that it all be burned.

Brod didn’t burn it.

Jorge Luis Borges offers an answer as to why. The following excerpt is from his interview with The Paris Review in 1966.

In the case of Kafka, we know very little. We only know that he was very dissatisfied with his own work. Of course, when he told his friend Max Brod that he wanted his manuscripts to be burned, as Virgil did, I suppose he knew that his friend wouldn’t do that. If a man wants to destroy his own work, he throws it into a fire, and there it goes. When he tells a close friend of his, I want all the manuscripts to be destroyed, he knows that the friend will never do that, and the friend knows that he knows, and that he knows that the other knows that he knows, and so on and so forth.

True or not, this Borgesian circularity has a particular, pleasing ring to it, like an echo—an echo every reader of Kafka’s work perpetuates.

Thinking about that gives me goosebumps.

 

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Quiet of the Now

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Between memories and daydreams, between the past and the future, the mind lingers.

It’s squished.

You have to fight the onslaught of time on two fronts before you can carve out a space in which to have a moment for rational, directed thoughts.

That’s how philosopher Hannah Arendt reads the following aphorism of Kafka. 

He has two antagonists: The first pushes him from behind, from his origin. The second blocks his road ahead. He struggles with both. Actually the first supports him in his struggle with the second, for the first wants to push him forward; and in the same way the second supports him in his struggle with the first; for the second of course forces him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two protagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? However that may be, he has a dream that sometime in an unguarded moment—it would require, though, a night as dark as no night has ever been—he will spring out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience of such warfare, as judge over his struggling antagonists.

(From “He”, The Zurau Aphorisms, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and by Michael Hofmann)

“He” is the mind; the two antagonists are the two arrows of time: the past presses at the mind’s back, while the future presses at the mind’s front. The aphorism is told from the viewpoint of a man’s thinking ego struggling to carve out space for itself, as Arendt explains in The Life of the Mind, and not from the viewpoint of a spectator observing the thinking process. To a spectator, time flows uninterrupted (as eternal change) or it is meaningless (the forces of past and future annihilate each other). Continue reading

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.

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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: 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.

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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.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11229362955/in/photolist-i7iqo8-idT6PP-hNDVUa-i6JriQ-hNCzCa-hNCssh-hNCNeS-hNxjYR-hNyyDx-hNwb85-hNyfoW-hND3tA-i6M9Fh-hNATip-hNCLFx-hNAUTZ-hNwxkz-hXfjzV-hNvQkE-hNxZgy-hNBHnk-i6E1Bq-hNCJHy-idPmmW-i6QnHn-hNDK7N-i6CqkD-i6KBxz-hNARUG-hNwNPJ-hNxAuv-hNyECj-hNvWtU-hNxmK4-hNw2Hb-i6J8Re-hLTrD7-hLW32E-hNwPX5-hNwLPQ-hXkvsM-i7hpKM-hNAGMA-hNzJLX-hLWnys-hLbJML-hLTELP-i6xwJ2-i6Um9H-hNxk3Y

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 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