Kafka Blocs

Methamorphosis Roger awoke from nagging dreams
to find he’d grown into a whopper, a hairy human swarmed in vermin.
“Don’t break bad on me,” his mother yelled at the door. “Bugs don’t dream, asleep or awake. You’re late for work.”
But he hardly knew how to work his new legs and arms. How would he get about
on so few? His hands and fingers he found fascinating, and he lay in bed studying
their shapes and twists and movement. His father banged on the door: “Get up!”
He felt his skin – soft! His two eyes saw only one thing at a time, yet he knew his skin was covered with insects so
various how or where was he to begin eating breakfast? Even the hands (but
he was not quite sure why he called them hands) on the clock moved like
the arms of a slow moving cockroach, around and around and up and down.
What seemed absurdly a bad eternity, (after all why would time break bad?) three roaches slipped under the rug.
Roger watched the roaches dissipate, his body wasted with bedsores, as if
he’d come to the roundabout of a pier. The Viral
Dude J. had few followers and those probably bots, and he rarely if ever
tweeted, so when the POG knocked on his door to ask about something
gone viral, Dude assumed some hack had infiltrated his computer system, spreading multi-vile messages about
him with perhaps a pic in his briefs. Dude’s habits were simple and hardly
worth the effort of tweets, of looking words up in a dictionary, as if a dog’s wag in a side street was any different
in Tijuana than in Timbuktu or Paris, Texas, where Dude had often visited,
enjoying an escargot with a Beaujolais, taking in jazz in the Business Quarter.
None of this of course reached home, and Dude’s annual review relied solely on ratios of quotas to sales, of clicks
that stuck to worrisome dead links. The Condo
Outside beneath the colossal condo K. camped with the peasants just in
from working the streets with their signs but he was in no mood for noir
poetry. He curled up on the margin of a broad sidewalk away from the bird stoppers placed all around the
condo and out of earshot from the sounds also designed to discourage
one from coming too close because the spacious steel walls were warm to the touch like a rubber hot water
bottle his mother used to sleep with after his father left them in the cold
house to go work a shift in the town factory owned by the rich Mr. Rook.
In the morning there was hot coffee and a young woman recruiting men to join her crew of window washers
and dressed and harnessed K. arose.

Can Business Rescue the Humanities?

While Plato ruefully proposed to banish the poet from his Republic, today’s Humanities aficionados may seek to bar businesspersons from their club. Yet the Humanities are in crisis, as usual, perhaps for lack of sound business sense, while the sound business sensors, often viewed as eschewing the Humanities, may be nipping in the basement of the human condition, where the good stuff ages.

Consider three writers whose business experience may have influenced their writing, and whose writings may calm sweating brows in the Humanities: Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser. Kafka worked for two insurance companies, Assicurazioni Generali, and the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where his reports contributed to improvements in workplace safety. One report, for example, commented on “the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.” Wallace Stevens worked for the Hartford, and, having earned a law degree from New York Law School, eventually earned a position as VP in claims, a job he valued. Few of his peers at the Hartford knew or cared about his poems, but when one of his co-workers came into his office one day asking about one of his poems, Stevens told him not to worry about it, for his co-worker was too literal. And Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006, spent a career at Lincoln Life, another insurance company. John Cage said that when we turn our attention to that music we do not intend, we find the sound a pleasure; just so, we must turn our attention to the Humanities we do not intend.

This benevolent blogger spent 25 years in the republic of an insurance corporation. After teaching for nearly a decade, he had taken a summer off to consider a career change, selected a national organization headquartered in his hometown of Los Angeles, and bought a new suit of clothes to prepare for the new enterprise. He had been reading Thoreau’s Walden, and was well aware of Henry’s advice, in the opening chapter, “Economy,” to “beware of all enterprises which require new clothes” (para. 15), but he nevertheless bought a new pair of wingtips, on the assumption that these were the shoes worn in the business world. He soon found he was the only one in the office in a pair of wingtips. Everyone else seemed to prefer penny loafers. Thus began his education into business. The office had bells, bells to signal the start of work, bells to signal breaks and lunches, and bells to signal the end of the workday. Indeed, the office had more bells than had any school he could remember, and he was reminded of Poe’s bells, “…Keeping time, time, time…to the throbbing…to the sobbing…to the moaning and the groaning of the bells,” though the office bells touched not the acoustic heart, being electric, and he thought too of McLuhan and Fuller – that old school prepared one to work in a factory, though he watched that factory change with locomotive speed: first the bells were freed, then the men from their ties, and more gradually the women from theirs. But these changes move not linearly, as a locomotive moves, but mosaically, and it’s often difficult to know if change in business is carrying one forward or backward. But the same is true in the Humanities, where bells and ties have also had their heydays, and specialization has now created a mosaic one can read neither “out far nor in deep.”

And one also finds in the Humanities heavy doses of alienation, particularly in the bust phase of the current devaluing of the purpose of a liberal arts education as academic acculturation adulterates, through competitive forces at work in the market place, for schools are part of the commercial marketplace, as they are increasingly discovering, yet business and schools alike continue to lobby for bailouts, and neither seems to have found a purpose and audience that is sustainable in a self-contained strategy and structure. For all the criticism of the “profits” these days, the universities may have dissed their affections once invested so heavily in the public interest. What’s left is elitism, with no access for the underclass, or, increasingly, even the middle class, but can there be a balanced elitism fueled by the working class? There was in California before Reagan set about to dismantle the best university system in the world. Still, one finds no less alienation in the Humanities than one finds in capitalism. For Marx, “the worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should,” but does this not describe the plight of today’s average Humanities adjunct? Why can’t schools run more like businesses? Perhaps they already do, as reflected in the competitive nature of grades, even as inflation has rendered the currency valueless.

For businesses have for some time been operating more and more like schools, creating campus atmospheres, valuing continuing education for employees, including executive training that exceeds anything available in the Humanities (Wharton is a good example), inculcating team atmospheres, and creating and running corporate universities that encourage personal, purposeful growth. But schools lack the sense of urgency that permeates the business world. Tenured professors don’t work full time, think alike (the competition is not for ideas, but to maintain the status quo), too much research is funded at the public trough yet is insulated from public view. The separation of business from the Humanities creates a false dichotomy that nevertheless suggests its own solution. The Humanities should embrace business with a sense of urgency, for their Titanic has hit its iceberg, and that the ship will sink stinks with mathematical certainty.

The Bare Bodkin of the English Major

“To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin,” says Mark Twain’s duke as he prepares to take down the house with an encore of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Where’s an English major when you need one? They were no doubt in short supply in the Mississippi Valley in the early nineteenth century, and their heyday from the late twentieth appears now to be in full wane. What can restore their numbers?

To take the meds, or not to take the meds; that is another question. Before you answer, read Louis Menand’s recent review, “Head Case: Can psychiatry be a science?,” in the March 1 New Yorker:  “These complaints [confusion over what causes and cures depression] are not coming just from sociologists, English professors, and other troublemakers” (68). To be an English major or not to be an English major; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to go broke reading or to take arms with others in self-incarceration in a corporate complex – but alas, those late twentieth century opportunities to cause trouble too are in full wane. What’s a poor boy to do?

Work, for one: “…people on the West Coast work,” Kenneth Rexroth said. “Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, ‘Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?’ Ginsberg said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Ship out…’ You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!’ In the East people don’t think like that” (Meltzer, 1971, p. 12*).

Some did, but many seem now to have forgotten this. A past issue of Reed College’s Reed Magazine, for example, contained an article by one of their English professors selling the English major; unfortunately, it was clear that the professor had never worked outside of academia, and had not much idea what one would do with one’s English major aside from finding shelter in academia – but that’s all over. Yet no mention in the article of Kafka’s time as a claim investigator for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia (where he invented the hard-hat); of Ted Kooser’s stint at Lincoln Life; of Wallace Stevens’s career at The Hartford; of Tom Clancy maintaining his Life license even after he became a best-seller.

“Questions like these [being and nothingness, as Sartre put it] are the reason we have literature and philosophy. No science will ever answer them” (Menand, p. 74). Yet as most of today’s Hucks head out for the territory of science and technology, leaving the books to turn to dust, some professors seem to be hunkering down; how do you like this solution: “…it [solving the crisis in the Humanities] means finding creative ways to make life instructively hard, for a few years, for the broadest range of talented people of all sorts and conditions whom we can educate and then employ productively and decently”? This non-profound non-market solution comes to us courtesy of Anthony T. Grafton of Princeton who seems to miss the working point that Rexroth talked about and proves Menand’s point of stubborn resistance.  In his New Republic critical reaction to The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in The American University (Menand, 2010), Grafton makes graduate school sound like joining the Jesuits; but who provides financial support for the Jesuits? For the young Ginsberg just starting out today, a job as a market researcher might be a sweet assignment.

“Oh, God,” Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.” No bad dreams, no harrowing questions, no need for the philosopher or the English major. But while the meds, according to Menand’s review, might help some with some of the bad dreams, the harrowing questions persist.

*Meltzer, D. (1971). The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine Books.

Kierkegaard: A Good Self is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to FindWe enjoyed Gordon Marino’s recent piece in the Times, “Kierkegaard on the Couch,” about a distinction between despair and depression, the former, according to Marino, a kind of disrespect for one’s self, not accepting who one is, the latter a disease; the former our existential condition (for which Kafka said there is no cure), the latter treatable with medication and counseling.

We were reminded of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Perhaps the opposite of Marino’s despair and depression distinction is found in joy and happiness. A certain kind of acceptance allows for joy, which is not quite the same as happiness. Joy, like grace, lives only in the moment; occurs regardless of where we are located; and appears like the epiphany, satori, the kick in the eye. Happiness is a kind of candy that wears off, leaving us depressed. Despair is the corollary of joy, depression the corollary of happiness.

Joy Hopewell comes to mind, a Flannery O’Connor character (“Good Country People”) who changes her name from Joy to Hulga, such is her despair. A good self is hard to find.

A word of one’s own

faculty-photo-1976Comfortably ensconced in our reading lair, hidden behind the arras of the Dec. 8 New Yorker, perusing the cartoons, time passing easily, and find our Eric has been at work on his French, annotating the Mankoff cartoon caption “A la Recherche des Cheveux Perdus” (p. 68) with the translation “Remember Hair Lost.”

What is past is lost, but still we recall – writing is a lure; reading, a way of walking.

Menand, Jan. 5: “Feiffer’s strips are about borrowed ways of talking, about the lack of fit between people and words, about the way that clichés take over” (p. 43).

Blake: “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Proverbs of Hell”).

Nabokov: “…minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise” (Lectures on Literature, “Good Writers and Good Readers,” p. 2).

In Nabokov’s teaching copies, his annotations include his own translations; in his copy of  “The Metamorphosis,” for example, he substitutes the Muirs’s “uneasy dreams” with “a troubled dream,” and “a gigantic insect” with “a monstrous insect” (p. 250). Monstrous means marvelous and strange, and Nabokov starts his students off with a different view of Gregor, beginning with Kafka’s first sentence.

Woody Allen: “Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick” (Annie Hall).

For Nabokov, reading meant rereading in excruciating detail, never straying from the text, bringing to exact light and color the watermarks of the text, like working a coloring book.

As for the uneasy, or troubled, dreams, Kafka reveals in the second paragraph that “It was no dream.”

But one’s own words? Where does one find them? Sometimes a word of one’s own seems no more possible than a room of one’s own. For some answers, we might turn again to E. B. White’s Elements of Style, where we are warned to “Write in a way that comes naturally”; “Avoid fancy words”; and “Avoid foreign languages” (Chapter V).

As for using words of one’s own to find lost time, Nabokov says: “…to recreate the past something other than the operation of memory must happen: there must be a combination of a present sensation (especially taste, smell, touch, sound) with a recollection, a remembrance, of the sensuous past” (p. 249). It took Proust 1.5 million words to illustrate that we are “…not free…to choose memories from the past for scrutiny” (Nabokov, p. 248).

The weightlessness of existentialism

Early yesterday, reading Nick Paumgarten on “The lives of elevators” (New Yorker, April 21), about a person stuck in one for forty-one hours, we were reminded of the weightlessness of reading and writing. The video, from the Kafkaesque security tape, is a work of art Warhol could have made; or Becket might have written a one-act play, but would have omitted the piano score, though the tempo is perfectly counterpointed to the Chaplinesque speed of the fast forwarded film. Of course, we also thought of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Later, at the Triple-A baseball game in a cold, near empty ballpark, a woman in the row in front of us turned around and asked if we had a pen. She seemed surprised when we said yes, and pulled the pen out of our jacket pocket, handing it out to her. She was a few seats away, down the row in front of us. There was no one else around. She was bundled up for the cold day of the game, in wool cap, and she had brought a full pack of incidentals to the game, to help pass the time, the way some people do at a ballgame, but no pen. She got up and walked over, smiling, and took the pen.

The person stuck alone in the elevator is essentially weightless, can neither rise nor fall, cannot change seats. There is no exit. He pries open the doors to find a cement wall. He is a character in Sartre’s No Exit, sans the other people.  

Take a piece of blank typing paper. Fold it in half, then in thirds. Place the folded paper in a pocket with a pen. You never know when you might get stuck – in a station at the metro, waiting anywhere – and it will not be nearly so irritating thinking you might like to be somewhere else. Pen and paper provide one with a play against the angst of any existential waiting game.

Hank Williams sings Huck Finn

“At the center of liberal education,” Northrop Frye gives us in “Ethical Criticism,” the second essay in “Anatomy of Criticism,” an attempt to create a science of literary theory, “something surely ought to get liberated” (p. 93). So what gets liberated?

“Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels,” Frye says. “Literature shapes itself, and is not shaped externally: the forms of literature can no more exist outside literature than the forms of sonata and fugue and rondo can exist outside music” (p. 97). The writer is not alone, after all. In fact, “the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative” (p. 97).

Not being alone means belonging to a community. Frye calls this “social aspect” of poetry archetype, by which he means “a typical or recurring image…which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience. And as the archetype is the communicable symbol, archetypal criticism is primarily concerned with literature as a social fact and as a mode of communication. By the study of conventions and genres, it attempts to fit poems into the body of poetry as a whole” (p. 99).

We find a working example of Frye’s subject in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a hit song by Hank Williams, written in 1949, and since covered by numerous musicians across the musical spectrum, the original lyrics often amplified, or augmented, (the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has recorded instrumental versions on “Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and Paul Motian”; and “Ghost Town”).

But what has all this got to do with Huckleberry Finn? In chapter I of Mark Twain’s novel, we find Huck, worn out by the parlor room evening with the widow and Miss Watson, alone in his room, trying “to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die, and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.” Hank removes Huck’s superstition and softens the tone, but the sentiment remains: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.”

So what’s so liberating? The knowledge that you are not alone, for one thing. We are encouraged by Borges, in his essay “Kafka and his Precursors,” to suggest both that Huck is a precursor to Hank, and that Hank changes our reading of Huck: “…the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; …not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. …The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (Labyrinths, p. 201).