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Posts tagged ‘Kafka’

Books for prisoners

Books to prisoners

It is a special kind of ignorance that classes reading as a privilege that should be banned. Reading is not a privilege, nor is it a right. It is an act of consciousness. The symbols and the medium need not be letters and paper. Human beings read everything that they look at. Books, newspapers, pictures, faces, eyes, actions, landscapes, patterns of behaviour, groups of individuals, subliminal messages, reading is the act of sensing and interpreting.

Man is by nature a social animal”, says Aristotle, and reading is how we converse with the world, even in silence. Reading is not a drawbridge to be retracted nor can its object be erased. A text, once read, lives on in the mind far longer than the act of reading it. Books are the captured voices of others and they can lead us anywhere we need or wish to go. Why then deprive prisoners of guidance? That is not an act of punishment, nor even of vengeance. To guide the misguided must be one purpose of a justice system.

To those prisoners who are allowed to read, or who seek a book to accompany them in prison as they pass time: two of the best companions you could ask for are a collected works of Shakespeare and a copy of the King James Bible. Both are untempting and intimidating books to many readers on the outside but they are the richest and most rewarding books when read with time. Read them slowly, read them for pleasure. If it is all that is available to you, then you are rich: “Why, nature needs not what thou, gorgeous, wear’st, / Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need – / You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.” (here).

I can’t imagine how I would react to imprisonment. Not well. Bryan Keenan’s amazing An Evil Cradling dispelled my teenage idea that being kidnapped might be an interesting path to self-discovery. It is tempting, however, to think of the books that could be read, particularly by someone starting reading in earnest for the first time, in prison.

Perhaps one should start with stoic literature. BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy is a book I read at least once a year as a free person. It contains among my favourite lines of literature: “If you seek the help of the surgeon, you must first expose the wound” and I think I would revisit it as often as I could if I were in prison.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius might also offer solace and a model for survival: “If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you should be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy.” Or Fox’s Book of Martyrs, on surviving and internalising persecution: “Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, “I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven.” He stood unmoved in the flames, crying out, ‘Jesus, I believe’; and these were the last words he was heard to utter.”

Or perhaps there is more comfort to be had in the literature of imprisonment, exile or disaster providing a kind of commonality of experience. Kafka’s The Trial or Voltaire’s Candide might be my first ports of call (“I am the best man in the world, and yet I have already killed three men, and of these three, two were priests.”). I might attempt Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipeligo, though I have never managed yet, or branch out into the literature of metaphorical imprisonment, Zóla’s L’Oeuvre, in which a young artist is imprisoned by his artistic ambition, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or more literally, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Perhaps instead, the literature of escapism would be more enticing, giving life to J M G Le Clézio’s contention that literature is the true travel and opening up worlds real and unreal for the reader to escape into.

Either way, once read, a book can never be taken from you. So a lesson for all of us from the deprivation of literature from prisons is to read as much and as widely as we can, while we can. And for those suffering a ban on reading, perhaps they can take solace in the words of Benjamin Disraeli: “When I want to read a good book, I write one.”

The Editors

Before the Law

thetrialThe Trial – Franz Kafka

Before the Law is a parable built into the penultimate chapter of Kafka’s The Trial, but originally published separately as a stand-alone text in 1915.  It tells the story of a man from the country who arrives at a door seeking admittance to the Law.  The door-keeper tells him that admittance to the Law is possible, but just not at that moment.  The door-keeper also tells him that he is just the first door-keeper of many, and that the other door-keepers are progressively more powerful.  Hearing this, the man waits on a stool by the door, perpetually asking whether he can be let in yet, and perpetually being told that he can’t.  Eventually, when the man has been waiting for years and is nearing death he asks the door-keeper why no one else has attempted to gain access to the Law in all those years, to which the door-keeper responds that the door was intended only for him, but that it will now be shut.

Interpretation of the parable begins within The Trial itself, with the protagonist Joseph K. discussing various aspects of it with the priest who has recounted it to him, and inevitably this discussion has taken on a life of its own outside the novel.  I say inevitably because The Trial is a novel about seeking access to justice, but it is also a novel about seeking meaning, given that K., being wholly removed from the system that is charging him with culpability of some sort, understands nothing of it whatsoever.  As such, when K. is presented with this story by the priest he frames it within the context of his own struggle, and immediately concludes that the man from the country is deluded by the door-keeper in a similar way that he feels deluded in relation to his treatment at the hands of the court.  Also, the parable appears at the very end of the novel, at a stage where the reader, like K., is becoming increasingly desperate to find answers of some kind.

One interpretation that seems to be popular sees the parable as cautioning against the dangers of a sedentary, fearful life.  This reading has it that the country man is put off his quest by the first obstacle he encounters, as well as the suggestion that there will more arduous obstacles to come.  Daunted by this, he chooses to wait passively by the first door in the hope that one day he will be ushered past the obstacles to his goal.  Of course, he is never ushered through and instead ends his days where he started, having suffered the added insult of being told by the door-keeper that the door was intended only for him.  I have to say I find this “no one gives it to you, you have to take it” interpretation very appealing.  After all, most of us will be familiar with that feeling of helplessness when we first decide to undertake something and realise that achieving it will be a lot harder, and take a lot longer, than we had anticipated.  I remember when I first started playing the guitar (Door 1), I was almost put off it entirely by the realisation that I would never be half as good as Jimi Hendrix (Door 100).  Whatever the case may be, I think there is certainly some element of existentialism in the parable: the idea that every individual must struggle to find his own meaning in life.

However, if this is an existentialist parable then it is wholly at odds with the rest of The Trial.  Indeed, K. does nothing but struggle throughout the novel, and his efforts are shown as utterly futile.  If K. is supposed to see himself as the country man then there appear to be few lessons for him to learn.  Perhaps K. has accepted what he sees as the rules of the justice game a little too readily.  Or perhaps K.’s mistake is merely to believe that justice will be done, and by analogy that meaning can be attained in life.  The fact that a priest is chosen as the narrator of the parable brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which I think can be seen as yet another interpretation of Kafka’s parable.  There is an assumption on the part of the characters in both texts that beyond the bare reality of the here and now there is something else, whether that is God, the Law, or an answer to the meaning of life.  We are all doomed to wait and we will all choose to wait in different ways, making it tempting to believe that both Kafka and Beckett are advising a sort of ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach to life.  But they are not, of course, because they are aware that the spectre of the “other” is too powerful once it has been stumbled upon, and in any case, as lawyers will tell you, ignorantia lex non excusat.

The Editors

Amerikan Dream

Amerika – Franz Kafka

Amerika is Kafka’s first long story and in many ways it stands apart from its successors, The Trial and The Castle.  For starters, the protagonist has a recognisably full name – Karl Rossman – and he inhabits a world which, although endowed with a sense of surrealism, is less manifestly abstract than those of the other two texts.  In fact, it is almost as if Kafka used this first attempt at a long-form narrative as a springboard, both conceptually and stylistically, to his later, better-known books.  Most English-translation editions of Amerika keep the “k” in the title, partly, I would imagine, as a nod to Kafka’s predilection for the letter – in many ways the K. of the later stories is a symbolic adaptation of Karl; more cynical and therefore easier to use as an avatar for mankind generally.  Also, Kafka never actually visited America, which means that what we are confronted with is purely a figment of the writer’s imagination, a distillation of travel books, assumptions and general impressions.

The surrealism in Amerika owes itself less to the situations into which Karl is forced than the way in which the narrative progresses seamlessly from scene to scene, much like the various stages of a convoluted dream – each stage flows incongruously into the next, but the dreamer remains blissfully unaware of the absence of logic.  For example, the first chapter – “The Stoker” – culminates in a bizarre scene in which Karl protests against the injustices inflicted on a friend he has just met (the stoker) in front of a room full of people including the captain of the ship that has brought him to America and, as it turns out, his uncle Jakob, who is also a senator.  There is nothing particularly grotesque about this (noone turns into a giant beetle), but the situation escalates implausibly, as dreams often do.

Karl fits the role of dreamer perfectly: he is an adolescent optimist in the mould of Voltaire’s Candide, almost physically incapable of bearing grudges or becoming disheartened.  Nevertheless, although he comes across as an ambitious young man, he is not in America by choice, but rather as a tragic exile of circumstance, having been seduced (raped) by a servant who then becomes pregnant by him.  All the same, America is presented as the country of redemption and hope; the obvious place to go if one has exhausted domestic good will in the way that Karl has.  That being said, although the text sets itself up as a “foreigner-makes-good-in-the-USA” narrative, the rug is very quickly pulled from our feet – Karl suffers setback after setback, always retaining his good humour but never really making any progress towards the American dream of wealth and self-fulfilment.  This wrong-foots the reader (it wrong-footed me) and instead we are forced to get used to the possibility that Karl will never “make it” in the traditional sense.  And yet, this is an undeniably positive book.  Karl is never fazed by the surrounding chaos and seems to thrive on it, spiritually if not materially.  As such, when Karl joins a circus in the final chapter we are left with the sense that maybe he has made it after all.  It reminded me of this reference to the Circus-Circus casino in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (subtitle: “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream”):

“Nonsense,” I said. “We came out here to find the American Dream, and now that we’re right in the vortex you want to quit.” I grabbed his bicep and squeezed. “You must realize,” I said, “that we’ve found the main nerve.”

“I know,” he said. “That’s what gives me the Fear.”

The White House

The Castle – Franz Kafka

The eve of a presidential election is the right time to read Kafka’s The Castle (perhaps we should rename it The White House). This is not just because any time is a good time to read The Castle (“Amalia was so overbearing that she not only applied everything said in her presence to herself, but made you apply it to her of your own free will”) but also because presidential elections are when politicians aim their hardest to descend from their castles and to extend the hand of the franchise to their people. It is a time when politicians strive for inclusiveness against exclusion, for popularity over rejection. It is a time when the nature of public office is at its most diffuse and distorted. When self-interest, extraordinary power and incredible wealth are harnessed by a powerful few to win the right to govern the many. It is a thoroughly disturbing and dissatisfactory process. Democracy is painful and unpleasant. Benign dictatorship may permit the greatest level of self-determination. In Western Anglo-Saxon democracies we satisfy our desire to be ruled, to abrogate personal responsibility, by electing a decision maker.

When voting for the right person to fill an office there are too many criteria on which to judge. Are they well qualified? Are they a good person? Are they married? What are their policies? Do they have children? Have they had to work their way towards success from a position of hardship? Are they driven? Are they greedy? Whose interests will they best represent if not their own?

Perhaps these are some of the questions posed by Kafka’s The Castle. The Castle describes a man attempting to ascend a newly discovered social milieu and discovering in fact that the slope he is climbing is unerringly slippery: beginning as a surveyor he becomes a janitor. So also of elections and their petty requirements: to vote, to pledge allegiance, to be once required and then surplus to requirements once a vote has been cast, the taught potency of the future voter and the slack powerlessness of the voted voter: “K. he added, had acted very churlishly on being woken, questioned and threatened in due form with expulsion from the country, although, as it finally turned out, perhaps with some reason, for he claimed to be a land surveyor and said his lordship the count had sent for him.”

This is us, isn’t it? All of us sent for, all of us called for some higher purpose to which we hope we can attain where others cannot, or will not try during their life times. This hopeful confidence: the desire to strive, to press on, to feel the wind battering the sails and to press on into the weather: this is most of what we should be about as humans if we wish to progress as individuals and societies. Striving, overreaching, pressing on and into the weather. Elections are not this: voters and leaders alike feel needed on the one hand, rejected on the other. Certain on the one hand, unsettled on the other. Proud on the one hand, so insecure on the other. In the current election, billion dollar campaigns have been spent in pursuit of an outer castle, spent by a few people who wish to present themselves as most appealing to a great thronging mass.

We don’t crack the soft shells of our outer castles readily enough by half. We do ourselves and each other a disservice by our own insularity. We find ourselves repelled by each others boundaries, we find ourselves unable to press on. Unable to pretend. Unable to penetrate the impenetrable castle on the hill. This goal, this is the site of vanity. We are in fact, none of us, in the castle. We are on the outside. None of us castellans. Or all of us castellans and the world outside all K, trying without success to enter, to gain access, to belong and us obfuscating – fending them off. That is a theme of The Castle – learning to belong, or at least learning that we do not belong – not naturally and sometimes not by effort.

Kafka’s book stores our discomfort in the world, in this vast stone repository of ambition and insecurity – The Castle. None of us are the castellans we might wish to be and Kafka entices us instead toward humility and self-acceptance – no doubt there are lessons within for electoral candidates, victorious and otherwise. “Hans became more cheerful, freed of the burden of thought, and he chattered away in a childish fashion for a little longer, first with K. and then with Frieda, who had been sitting there for some time with her mind on very different subjects, and who only now began to join in the conversation again. Among other things she asked Hans what he wanted to be when he grew up. He didn’t have to think about that long, but said he wanted to be a man like K. When asked his reasons he wasn’t able to give any, and when asked whether he wanted to be a school janitor [like K] he firmly said no.”

 The Editors

4. Writing and the Future

So far this series we have looked at various ways in which the novel can anticipate future trends and developments, both on a personal level and in the context of the broader changes that define society.  Fiction can, of course, look forward to the future, but this is not something that can ever be undertaken in isolation.  Even science fiction, the genre that most specifically looks at what will befall humanity in times to come, is anchored in the past and present.  In fact, science fiction is all the more interesting because, in looking forward to the future, it reveals aspects of our current world outlook: our fears, hopes and dreams.  The writer, after all, is writing in the present and does not, as previously discussed, possess any supernatural powers beyond a rational brain and an inbuilt but refined sense of intuition.  As such, any successful predictions of things to come can occur only by percipience, that is, by a writer’s vision of the world in its totality.  Ultimately, our conception of the future can be nothing more than a mental projection, conjured by the imagination and based on the possibilities of the present.

Take, for instance, H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel The War in the Air, written in 1907.  It is a book that eerily anticipates the use of aircraft in modern warfare, and yet it also reveals more generally a fear of industrial war on a global scale, a fear that would be justified by the outbreak of the First World War.  It shows that in the decade leading up to 1914, the idea of international war was a very real concern, at least for those with vivid imaginations, or for readers and writers of science fiction.  However, H.G. Wells clearly goes beyond the immediate future, and in fact the plot of The War in the Air bears more resemblance to the Second World War in its description of a transcontinental conflict that ends in a stalemate between superpowers.  Indeed, at the heart of the novel lies the seed of the great 20th century fear – the extermination of mankind resulting from international conflict and the exponential development of the technology to do it with.  It is a fear that persists in the 21st century.

Milan Kundera points out in The Art of the Novel that the most prophetic writer of the last century was probably Franz Kafka, a novelist who envisioned the terror of the totalitarian state before the Soviet gulag and the Nazi concentration camp.  And yet Kundera also argues that Kafka’s greatness lay not in his powers of divination, but in his ability to see things about the world that were simply not apparent to others:

“Kafka made no prophecies.  All he did was see what was “behind.”  He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing.  He did not intend to unmask a social system.  He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of history.”

So what are the concepts currently appearing in fiction that will go on to define the 21st century? Perhaps it’s best to remind ourselves of another Kundera quote:

“Chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty.  For the future is always mightier than the present.  It will pass judgment on all of us, of course.  And without any competence.”

The Editors

The Trial

Trial coverThe Trial – Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edmund Muir, Vintage

There is a room in a building in Beirut that is scary.  The building itself is a nondescript cement block.  At the top of one staircase is the office of an eminent notary who wears blue suits and writes notes, pressing on a padded leather jotter.  At the top of another staircase is a large open room, with a desk behind a wooden pulpit.  I remember a carpet above the desk, hanging on the wall.  Even if it is not a carpet in that room, it is indicative of the building, strangely juxtaposed between what is comfortable, luxurious, right and what is stark, punitive, wrong.  Such is a Beirut courthouse.  A place of justice.  Of equity.  A place of disquieting balance.  None of these is the room that is scary.

Outside the room that is scary I remember a boy of sixteen sitting on his hands.  His hands were handcuffed behind his back.  A man who said he was his father’s driver was feeding him a hamburger. He was sitting opposite the room and I was scared on his behalf.

In the room there was a short man.  He was talking quickly so that his arms moved when he spoke like an octopus.  Stacked up around him were mountains of files.  Each of those files represented a boy, sitting on his hands, being fed a hamburger by his father’s driver which is to say, to some degree, a life.  In short, we should all read Kafka because Kafka presents us with images of reality, distorted logic, human frailty that are so terrifying that they remind us of, in fact they explain to us, the room.

K., the protagonist, meets the Whipper who is desperate to get out of work to meet his girlfriend: ‘“My poor sweetheart is waiting for me at the door of the bank.”  He dried his tear-wet face on K.’s jacket.  “I can’t wait any longer,” said the Whipper, grasping the rod with both hands and made a cut at Franz, while Willem cowered in a corner and secretly watched without daring to turn his head.  Then the shriek rose from Franz’s throat, single and irrevocable, it did not seem to come from a human being but from some tortured instrument, the whole corridor rang with it”.

Kafka tears apart our humanity, the Whipper is impatient, the Whipper is vain, the Whipper is weak, the Whipper is selfish, the Whipper is just doing his job, just thinking of his “poor sweetheart”.  We are all of us the Whipper, tortured instruments: when we act for our convenience to another’s cost; when we scuttle forward on the path we have labelled ‘the future’ not thinking to take others with us, to look behind us at what we are afraid of; when we fail to think of the others we whip with our love for them, for each other, or more, for ourselves.

Kafka lampoons bureaucracy with logic and the irrationality of man.  Those are the qualities, or the absence of them, that make a room full of paper lives so terrifying.  Someone just doing his job, thinking of his family, thinking of his life while another, sitting on his hands which are handcuffed behind his back, waits to know what will become of him.

The Editors