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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Imaginary Creatures: Cross-Breeds

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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).

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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

Morality and the Multiple Choice Test

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On the continuum containing dictionaries with tiny margin-side illustrations and full-blown comics, where would you put a novel in the form of an exam?

An exam with pictures?

No, no pictures. But at least it’s multiple choice.

Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice published in 2014, is a novel-exam hybrid which I’ll refer to as a novexam. It is divided in five sections according to the types of questions he asks of the reader. Section I contains the following instructions (translation from the Spanish by Megan McDowell):

In exercises 1 through 24, mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.

1. MULTIPLE

  1. manifold
  2. numerous
  3. untold
  4. five
  5. two

How would you answer?

Manifold is almost a synonym for multiple, as is numerous, as is the first meaning of untold. But what of five and two? They’re related to each other (as numbers), and they’re both multiples, even if two is smaller than five. The dilemma may appear trivial, or subtle, or indeed unsettling depending on how you see it.

To my US readers: who just had a flashback to an SAT nightmare?

To everyone: if I were giving out instructions on how to read this, and any other, novexam I’d say: before and after reading each “question” remember—remember!that this is voluntary and no one will grade your answers. Otherwise you may not progress past the first few questions, or you may find your blood pressure needs medical attention.

A unique reading experience is undeniably Zambra’s intention, so you shouldn’t completely anaesthetise yourself from the emotional impact, but if you’re unused to challenging books, beware.

— Mini spoiler alert: I will not reveal the plot of the stories, and there are plots and stories in the book; however, I may reveal the moral of Section I, and therefore possibly part of the overall message Zambra wishes to impart—

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Storytelling in Space and Time

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Remember, remember, The Last Jedi that came out in December?

 

There’s the conventional text, rows of inky print on ivory.

Then there’s the audio book on one side and the graphic novel on the other. Audio books replace the visual aspect of reading with an aural one, whereas graphic novels introduce additional visual elements at the expense of words.

Occasionally, the internet debates whether consuming either of these counts as reading, so let me first state my opinion—it depends how you define reading, and in any dialogue I’m willing to be as liberal with the terminology as is needed so long as it’s consistent—and now let me move on.

It’s more interesting to consider how different means of storytelling combine our senses into a coherent experience. After all, we hear in time, but we see in space; to my mind this affects the chosen medium and the experience more so than most other aspects.

Let me explain why.

In storytelling, written words convey both sounds and pictures. You hear that gunshot, you see the victim sprawling. Of course, words can make you cringe or break out in goosebumps; they can make you laugh or teach you a lesson. Like any story.

But it’s also true that sounds—spoken words, music, noise—convey pictures (and words) and more.

Indeed, pictures—moving, stationary, on the page and off, fine art, doodles—convey sounds (and words) and more.

So audio, illustrated, and written mediums, whilst not interchangeable, lend credibility and imaginative capacity to each other like a set of connected siphoning chambers in the reader’s mind.

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How to Surive a Tough Book: Philosophy

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Different books offer different pleasures and not all of them end in heart-thumping affect.

Some books are initially overwhelming—like, for me, Knut Hamsun’s Hungerand require a modified, laterigrade approach where I half-squint, half-sidle down the page, and whenever it gets too much, I write a comment to release a part of the emotional pressure.

Some books are initially underwhelming—like, for me, Spinoza’s Ethics—and require a modified, porpoising approach where I jump in and out of the page, searching for connections and meaning.

In both cases a creative persistence is needed, and ultimately rewarded (if anything, rewarded more than when reading a middling potboiler that ticks all the boxes).

When books are deemed “tough”, it’s because they require a new coping mechanism from the reader: a different approach from chapter to chapter, a modification of reading goals mid-chapter, and (gasp!) actual thinking while reading.

Escapism—of the kind where you plop yourself on the massage table in an all inclusive resort, become dough, and forget the hands that knead you—it is not. When a book gets tough the bar serves glasses full of pebbles, the air smells of an end-of-year exam hall, and the band plays an industrial hard-metal version of Stravinski’s The Rite of Spring.

Most people riot, then get up and leave.

However, a tough book is also a challenge, and one which can still bring the pleasure of “flow”—a psychological state where man is so well-matched to mission that the world’s problems fall away.

So don’t leave.

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Chain of Reasoning

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This week has been about intention: first, where it starts and are we in control; then, once established, how it can employ paltering to achieve its goals. Today, I bring up the fundamental intention most of us have when we communicate: we want to make sense.

In particular, there is one figure of speech, anadiplosis, that can lend our arguments the forcefulness and validity of truth even when applied to unconnected elements.

Start from the beginning.

Making sense amounts to cogently conveying our arguments to another person. What it means to do so cogently and what is defined as an argument will depend on the situation: explaining why we’re late, discussing whether to purchase a car, or simply telling a story. Whichever the circumstances, our aim is rarely to garble and perplex.

On sentence level, our reasoning is often a long chain of phrases bound together by conjunctions, which, like the accordions of articulated buses, bend and groan under the strain of each turning—but hold. On paragraph level, we rely on unity of subject matter (traditionally a new subject requires a new paragraph), conventions of reasoning (specific to general statements, general statement and examples, logical argument etc), or all of the above formatted in an idiosyncratic, but fairly apparent “flow of thought”, such as bullet points in agendas, dialogue blocks in a book, action sequences, stanzas. Anything.

Occasionally, what we’re saying doesn’t contain any immediate or established sense, but we would like it to appear otherwise (for whatever reason, poetic or pernicious). This is when we can apply anadiplosis, a figure of speech where we begin a sentence with the final word, or any other significant word, from the preceding sentence.

Let’s see it do the job.

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Mephisto and Words: Quirks and Perks

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Faust or Faustus of German legend started his literary life in a late sixteenth century chapbook by an unknown author. He was brought to the English audience by Christopher Marlowe in his play Doctor Faustus, and then flourished in Goethe’s Faust more than two hundred years later (and has become a literary trope since then).

Faust is God’s favourite scholar, bent on learning all there is but dissatisfied with what he has thus far achieved. Mephistopheles is a demon who bets with God that Faust can be corrupted, and proceeds to pit his wits against Faust. In Goethe’s dramatisation, Mephistopheles is a whimsical, down-to-earth character—he is the cynic to Faust’s romantic—and he has some of the best, if not wisest, lines in the play.

Since Quiver Quotes is devoted to fine writing, and in that sense too, the art of rhetoric and the power of the word, let us hear what Mephistopheles, or Mephisto as is his hypocoristic, has to say about words, paradoxes, and human nature. (Taken from the Wordsworth Classics edition; translation by John R. Williams.)

MEPHISTO.    I’ve always found that you can fox
                           A wise man or a fool with paradox.
                           It’s an old trick, but it works all the same,
2560                 And every age has tried time and again
                           To spread not truth, but error and obscurity,
                           By making three of one and one of three.
                           And so the fools can preach and teach quite undisturbed —
                           Who wants to argue with them? Let them wander on;
2555                  Most men believe that when they hear a simple word,
                           There must be some great meaning there to ponder.
                                                                                               (2557–2566)

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To Live or to Recount: Quirks and Perks

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Photo by Joshua Earle

Quote:  This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must — and this is all that is necessary — start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

But you have to choose: to live or to recount.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (translator: Robert Baldick)

A lesser mind might have put that last statement as: you cannot be both present in the moment and looking back at the past. Or: you cannot be both within, experiencing life, and without, observing it. But Sartre framed his words in terms of storytelling. On the other hand, the first sentence of the Quote is a recipe for any author (supposedly) bereft of ideas or inspiration: you are a story, your life is a story, all you have to do is recount it.

Skip now from Sartre, the existentialist, to Camus, the absurdist, speaking in his novel The Stranger (which I discussed in The Sunny Absurd).

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The Sunny Absurd

 

Albert Camus’ Stranger (1942) has one protagonist, the first person narrator called Meursault, and one antagonist: the sun. The book is originally in French; I quote from a translation by Stuart Gilbert. I have italicised all the words related to the sun.

Quote: There was the same red glare as far as the eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.

Any book blurb gives away that this is a story of how Meursault got drawn into a murder on an Algerian beach. There’s also mention of the story being Camus’ exploration of the nakedness of man faced with the absurd. The Quote describes Meursault walking along the fateful beach, and his physical fight with the absurdity of his situation.

The Quote is not a spoiler. The book is short, around 100 pages, and within the first quarter the following words play prominent roles in conveying the oppressive mood of absurdity: sun, light, heat, lamps. The remaining three quarters intensify the heat — summer and the plot set in.

Oh, and the opening words are: Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. That surely adds to the heavy mood, and yet, the only image that had stayed with me since I last read this book, half a life ago, was the dazzle of yellow and white that can wreck havoc on the mind.

 

What makes the Quote quiver?

Sun-glare.

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