A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

Some Thoughts on Myths

The angels are two days and two nights older than we: the Lord created them on the fourth day, and from their high balcony between the recently invented sun and the first moon they scanned the infant earth, barely more than a few wheat fields and some orchards beside the waters. These primitive angels were stars. For the Hebrews, the concepts of angel and star merged effortlessly: I will select, from among many, the passage of the Book of Job (38:7) in which the Lord spoke out of the whirlwind and recalled the beginning of the world, “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Quite apparently, these sons of God and singing stars are the same as the angels. Isaiah, too (14:12), calls the fallen angel “the morning star.”

Borges incorporated countless myths into his writing: knowing old stories, and retrieving and reworking them, brought about conclusions radically different from rational inquiry. By that I mean there is nothing logically necessary about stars, Semitic myths and the Hebrew Bible in particular that creates his story. In that sense he is similar to Joyce rather than Kafka–he was the ultimate synthesizer. His labyrinths are borrowed from history. Kafka produced the motifs for our new age, Borges loved the last era’s. Our point of departure requires a few caveats. Myths are not lies or delusions: they are, in that glittering phrase of Roland Barthes’, inflections. Myths still exist all around us, and while many are antiquated the vast majority still have a vitality.

Yes, dear reader, we still have myths and we still have our cathedrals. I think that social media is almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object. In those cathedrals instead of celebrating a child’s hand that does not know how to die or is forced to live (e.g. A Hand Grows from the Grave by A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, A Hand Grows from the Grave: Three Legends from Mecklenburg  by Karl Bartsch ect) but something equally informative. Say, that if you are (1) unattractive, (2) stubborn, (3) egotistical and (4) nerdy you are automatically intelligent.

Look at how Steve Wozniak was fat and stubborn in his youth and how the casting in the Jobs movie was perfectly accurate for a computer nerd, which was sarcasm dear reader. Look at the chubby Bill Gates jumping over a chair, our contemporary construction of ‘nerd:’  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TCxE0bWQeQ . Then there is this familiar television host. I cannot help but notice, especially in the case of Wozniak, how reality is bent to our myth. Wozniak, somehow, gains thirty pounds. Myths are still all around us. The only thing that has changed is that they are incorporated into shiny new cathedrals that are publicly traded.

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If I am not mis…

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, 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. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.

Borges and his unique, accurate and interesting approach to Kafka. For the full essay, and a few others, click here. 

My Bookish, Puritan Habits

To anthropologists of the future my book buying will look as much like a sinister cult as a commercial triumph (for the bookstore, of course). Book-buying, after all, has all the basic lineaments of a religion. When I walk through the shelves I am an adherent, and when I seize upon a book I am as much motivated by feelings of guilt as anything more constructive. For when I walk through all those words, winking shyly at me, my hand never leaves my side without a twinge. There are so many, how can I only choose one? And then, right alongside, is the urge to atone for fleshly sins. ‘I can read this book,’ I assure myself, and in the process relax. It will be treatment for those long hours contorted into office chairs. My back shouts in triumph. I have neglected the finer things in life and with a bit of book all will be forgiven.

Another sign of puritanical, religious beliefs? Regularity. Many visit their places of worship with a fanatical regularity: a third of LA Fitness members, for instance, go virtually every day. Once there, believers are led by sacerdotal instructors, who either goad them into mass ecstasy during aerobics classes, or preside over the confessional tête-à-tête of personal training. Similarly, I am led by my greatest instructor: my nose. Otherwise, I am led through, confessional style, by a tightly clutched list of titles urging my not to stray too far from the path, but also indulging my tendency to get lost among the trees.

I can see your eyebrow raised, dear reader. ‘You are led by your nose!’ I’m afraid so. There is no other way to describe it. My only hope is that you, too, dear reader are a member of the (secret?) book-sniffer guild. Surely I cannot be alone. When I wander through the aisles of books I wish, or at least lie, that my buying habits were motivated by a curious but pleasant mix of knowledge, taste and refinement. That is simply not the case. The situation I am in is that of a slave. I am a slave to smell. The smell of a good bookstore has the same effect as that of, well, something appropriately illicit. Would it be fair to say that it is a fetish? I am not sure, and frankly I do not want to dwell on the subject too long. But there is something intoxicating about the right balance of glue, age and love that is the exclusive domain of pre-owned books.

What always surprises me about book stores is how transparent the books are. What I feel for any single book, like Alice’s Cheshire cat, threatens to disappear if I stare at it too long. Gradually and then all at once. I pick up a winking, colorful book with a title and cover art that promises so much. But then I am left with nothing but a disembodied smile. The book is not a thoughtful meditation, or even a frothy adventure. Instead it is something dully and duly pushed by an obscure publisher. I have tendency for picking up shallow devotionals. Scripture for the young, thirty-something entrepreneur. Sigh. Another book, which promised to be a riotous adventure through medieval theology, is at best something that gets placed on a coffee table never to be loved. The editors and publishers have done too much damage. Where is the substance? It prevents no one from seeing right through.

Allow me one quick aside, dear reader. A well replicated Borges critique: “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. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” In the same sense I feel that the best bookstores, and the best trips, modify my conception of the past. The best book stores burden my future, in the best possible sense, and brighten my past.

Each devotee has his or her own rituals, though most rely on the principles of self-mortification and delayed gratification. My own are simple. I must carry everything I buy in one armload or not at all. It is my absolute barrier. I do not do two trips. Perhaps this habit started out of hubris. But now it is a fail-safe that prevents my wallet from being emptied in a particularly riotous afternoon. I do not apologize for myself or provide excuses. Yet when my arms strain under the pounds I feel some sort of joy. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I suppose I do something similar and in some perverse sense my arms are straining under the time they hold. In short, my aching muscles represent a perfect bridge between self-mortification and delayed gratification. There is nothing more gratifying than a book, and nothing dilates time like trying to herd my books from some obscure back table, to the front, to my car, from my car and to my book shelves.

That my grunts, sighs and quiet mutterings through this whole process provides a liturgy is only an excellent bonus. Perhaps they reach the firmament above? God I wish I was worshiping right now.

They Have One Book

Some days I think it would be terribly romantic if I became someone of one book. Assuming I don’t succumb to my romantic dreams about being an alcoholic I’d be a grouch, but a well-loved one. I would always carry that one well-loved book with it’s tired pages. In this daydream I imagine myself like some sort of latter day Jonathan Edwards. But instead of the Bible it is Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Perhaps the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance and you all are unbalanced chakrahs in the hands of an angry God world. Perhaps it could be some Third Wave Feminist pink handbook or Mao’s red one. The book is not as important as the habits and the accomplishments. I’d be the Robert Graves of Aztec literature. Or the Robert Graves of Robert Graves–his works can sustain and even flourish with multiple readings.

Aquinas created the aphorism ‘a man of one book,’ or so I believe. Wikipedia confirms which is almost a reassurance. What I would like, and perhaps I should store this seed away for future efforts, is a book like Robert Merton’s. But instead of tracing the phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ I trace ‘a man of one book’ used in the appropriate context. That would be scholarship of the most frivolous and fun kind.

Isaiah Berlin, in his frothy essay about Russian literature, had this to say about the phrase: “[Aquinas’s] words are generally quoted today in disparagement of the man whose mental horizons are limited to one book. Aquinas, however, meant that a man who has thoroughly mastered one good book can be dangerous as an opponent. The Greek poet Archilochus meant something like this when he said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The metaphor glitters. I love it. I would be the best hedgehog the world had ever known! Or so I reassure myself.

A few people have attempted to become a man of one book (how interesting is it that I have not found a woman or two to soften this list? Not very, as my ‘research’ skills are not without their blindspots but worth mentioning). Michael Dirda owned, at last count, nearly twenty books by or about E. F. Benson as well as a few by the brother Robert Benson. E. B. White carried Walden around everywhere he went. The grandmother in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had the letters of Madame de Sevigne. Even Alexander the Great never left Asia without Homer’s tome, bejeweled with the conquests of nations.  Samuel Johnson admonished novice writers to devote themselves to Addison’s essays. There’s that well-worn anecdote that Francis Bacon always chatted about Aeschylus, almost obsessively, and his writings make him a first ballot ‘man of one book’ shoe-in. John Wesley also claimed to be a man of one book.

An interesting note: the scholarship that surrounds Wesley is, in brief, a rough mimic of the popular and academic esteem one gathered (or missed) by being a ‘man of one book.’ He was loved when he was a man of one book, the Bible, during the early scholarship but as that idea became more archaic to those who care about his reputation (or, to be honest, those who know about him at all) scholarship has changed accordingly. It’s a prime instance where there was one set of agreed on facts that were “papered over and a new set of agreed-upon facts were hurried into place.”  If I ever write a book about the phrase, I think he would be a nice pinnacle.

Perhaps I’m already someone of one book, or at least one author. I manage to throw Vidal’s name out therefrequently. But it would be another animal entirely if I peppered my posts, not to mention daily chats, with Augustine’s Confessions, or Georg Misch’s impossibly well researched History of Autobiography in Antiquity and–wait for the gasp–its two volumes. If I’m honest, and I had to commit myself to one book, I would attempt it with Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

“That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truth and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truth in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truth that made the people grotesques.”

The most enjoyable aspect would be the great irony of becoming a character in Anderson’s book. My one truth would be the bookwarning me away from letting a single group of truths monopolize my attention.

Even still I wouldn’t mind reading one book to death. I just never have. As it is I don’t know if I’m much better than those that have. Christopher Howe, over at the Guardian, has a long list of reasons for why it’s never a problem to have too many books. Who is he trying to convince himself except for himself? When I scan my books there are not any convincing, or even defensible, reasons for why I should not read every one of the forlorn friends. This book is for a more patient me, I assure myself, than the one that woke up today. I pick up and read the back cover of another. This one I quickly put down. Poetry! I am too patient for poetry. I want the meaning to bite me in the ass. Another book is about the English—bah! Too frumpy. Another is about peasants. I have no time for the working class.

Perhaps this worrying forgets why I read in the first place. To Professor Borges his message was always that the study of literature is about appreciation, not context or theory much less romantic ideas about how my universe would revolve around some mulch and ink. “Reading should be a form of happiness.”

The Allure of the Map

The Allure of the Map

I enjoy Borges a lot. He gets a reference.

Some days I wake up from a dream where I’m Borges but then, as I get started on my day, I realize I am in one of his books. At that point it becomes a nightmare. I never woke up but just woke up into another dream. It’s almost as if I’m trying to make a dream as intricate and confusing but as beautifully balanced as Borges was.

I wish I could explain it better but I thought I’d share.