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.

Of course, no m…

Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. “To take upon us the mystery of things”—what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia—this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol’s “The Greatcoat,” or more correctly “The Carrick”); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis)—so what? There is no rational answer to “so what.” We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.

Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphoses. Read the full here.

Literary Bloodletting, Gore Vidal, Other Observations

This literary season has been filled with the best sort of reviews: cutting ones. The type that breed blood. Franz Kafka, the Great Gatsby, Alice Munro–each has been bloodied by, respectively, Joseph Epstein of the Atlantic Monthly, Christian Lorentzen in the London Review of Books and Kathryn Schulz in New York magazine. It is interesting to note that like all true, great literary takedowns the targets are long dead. Sure, they have defenders but these defenders are nothing like the greats themselves. And if we, as that colorful and star-studded aphorism implies, stand on the backs of giants surely they do not need help defending themselves?

Perhaps they do. I find the best excitement when the writer, or writers, ‘bump’ back. In person and as loud as can be. It is always better when the writer that has written the book in question takes his or her would be critics to task. Personally, I cannot help but recall all the biting remarks of Gore Vidal. He is an excellent example. He is the example. If you have not read his historical novels then you have missed out on a fascinating portion of the American literary landscape. If you have not read his essays, then you have also missed out on a great wit. When I peruse his defenses one has to wonder how the current targets would fair. Kafka, I’m sure, would only sink deeper into self-pity and despair. Otherwise, however, it is something of a mystery.

What is not is in Lincoln, An Exchange, where Vidal is at the top of his game. “It’s savory scholar-squirrel stew time again! Or, to be precise, one scholar-squirrel and one plump publicist pigeon for the pot. So, as the pot boils and I chop this pile of footnotes fine, let me explain to both pigeon and the no doubt bemused readers of these pages…” How often does the first page of a reply sing so eloquently? His barbs are almost as quick as his pacing, which never falters in a steady, upwards beat to a crescendo that declares ‘I am Vidal, I am right.’ It is a textbook example of intellectual hilarity and enjoying to read. It beats not only to the sound of a inner tune but drives his targets into the ground.

“So either Current is as wrong about this as he is about me, or he is right… and anyone who draws attention to the discrepancy between their own past crudities and their current falsities is a very bad person indeed, and not a scholar, and probably a communist as well.”

Alternatively, “As Current is as unknown to me as Lincoln was to him in his book The Lincoln Nobody Knows, I could hardly have been personal.”

And, perhaps best of all, “But although he no longer holds to his views on Lincoln and the blacks as presented in The Lincoln Nobody Knows (a book, he’ll be relieved to know, I never took seriously, largely because of the megalomaniacal title in which has inserted himself).”

When one reads Vidal doesn’t their heart, just a little, sing? If Jonathan Swift was right, and we moderns are the bees who produce honey and wax–the overused “sweetness and light”–then Vidal is certainly the sting. It is a loss for the country that Vidal’s “disturbing presence” on the American scene has stopped. Wherever he is I’m sure he’s making enemies and stirring the pot.