Send Me No Letters– Or, Reading Myself Out of a Fantasy

As I’ve been wading, over the past few days, through non-reader-populated trains and work scenarios that would have made stellar sitcom episodes, I’ve also managed to finish a collection of Kafka’s epistles to one of his mostly-virtual sweethearts, Letters to Milena.

The woman in question was his Czech translator, living in not-so-far-away Vienna while young(-ish) Franz holed up in Prague, doing such a great job on his stories (and maybe for other more predictable reasons, such as appearance and whatnot) that he was soon surrounding and sucking her in with the sorts of amazing, heart-on-their-sleeve letters most girls dream of receiving from poets and writers.

Kafka postcard to his sister, at Red Rook Review.

Kafka’s postcard to his sister, at Red Rook Review.

This outpouring followed on the heels of his lengthy and disastrous engagements (two of them!) to Felice Bauer, which had also been carried out mostly via the mail, and in the midst of another engagement to Julie Wohryzková, which was broken off while this particular correspondence was going on. Much like the exchanges I’ve read between Franz and Felice, the letters we have in this volume (only Kafka’s, none of Milena’s) provide a nice example of someone desperate for human connection and understanding, but simultaneously undercutting the possibility of achieving that goal, holding his recipient at bay from his safe haven in another city, while knowing someone else is at least carrying his thoughts and fears and emotional burdens along with him. It’s unclear from this collection how much of a barrier the married Milena was placing in the path of the two of them being in the same physical space, but it’s also evident that her distant paramour frequently resisted making that scenario possible, even while professing his devotion to her. On his end, it seems to be the same old thing with Felice all over again, carrying out a disembodied, intense, time-consuming intimacy only to have it fall flat and strange once the correspondents come face to face.

It was a beautifully frustrating collection to read, made all the more maddening by the author’s ever-more-frequent bursts of pessimism and self-insult. But here’s the maybe-positive outcome for this reader: having craved, and never found, such correspondence for most of my life, exposure to all this fraught scribbling confirmed my waning enthusiasm for such affairs that began with reading, and reading about, Kafka’s correspondence with Felice– and finally doing away completely, I think, with the last bit of regret or futile yearning for such interaction in my own life.

Pained as I am by the present’s immersion in virtual reality and relationships, Kafka’s letters, and the way he would use them, have brought to light the fact that The Virtual has been around much longer than I’d thought, and in previously unexpected fashions. Contrivances designed to bring people closer– media as simple as a written letter or as dependent on sophisticated engineering as an electronic spluttering of data– so often provide an illusion of intimacy that, in its deception, may even act as a barrier to real, full, embodied relationships (romantic or non-) ever becoming a reality. I’ve heard that dating sites give users the advice to meet as soon as possible, and not carry on a lengthy e-correspondence, so as not to build up a false image of the person sitting behind a faraway screen. In reading these letters, I’ll allege that even evidence from a pre-cyber-bound world stands in support of that suggestion.

Kafka did have relationships with women in his actual vicinity; he even lived with the last in his line of ladies, Dora Diamant. In the end, then, he proved himself capable of at least crossing a big, scary line into reality. Maybe it took those hundreds of letters, and hours spent writing them, to get there– but I still wonder what would have happened, how his life, his writing, his fears, might have been different, if he’d taken that step sooner.

Train Catalogue #2

Hmm. I fear the paper-bound pickings were almost as slim today as they were on Friday, with my work day bookended by the view of one rider per train with her nose in a novel, each of which seemed to fall within the chick lit genre, at least if Eat, Pray, Love (afternoon train) belongs in that category. I’ll admit, though, that my p.m. round of investigations was deterred by 1) hordes of French teenagers packing the aisle and 2) the vision that was taking its own leisurely time vacating my eyeballs– namely, the full moon my half of the sidewalk received en route to the station, courtesy of a homeless guy who thought he’d show, not tell, us how he felt about the general public right at that moment. That latter offering provided an entirely different sort of text to read, and was as vividly non-digital as you can get.

Words to Fill in for a Lack of Words

How the hell am I supposed to review Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric? Like everything I’ve read or seen by her, I can’t; I simply can’t do anything but sit there in awe. The closest I can come to articulating anything useful is to note that, just after the final narrator claimed she didn’t know how to end what she was doing (or rather, end the situation that had created and was creating the very need for this volume to be written), I finished her book– and had to write, “NICE,” meaning something closer to a marvel-saturated “DAMN.”

Abremmer, on Wikimedia Commons.

From Abremmer, on Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know how Rankine does what she does– but it’s not even worth admitting I’m envious, because that’s got to be just a given for anyone who reads or sees her work, and is such a useless complaint when faced with unquestionable artistry– and urgently relevant artistry at that– that maybe the best response is simply to stand in sheer gratitude to the phenomenon that she is.

Incidentally, I went to a lecture and reading Rankine gave not too long ago, for which people lined up over an hour in advance (for a poet!). At some point during one of the narrated videos she played, I noticed an inordinate amount of sniffling– and looked around to realize that I and everyone around me were crying.

And here’s the great and terrible fact about that response: it’s still not enough. Because the force of her presentation unavoidably magnifies the force of the situations/realities/tragedies she describes, something has to be done. There you are, faced with your own complicity and responsibility, and the unshakable demand– on behalf of others (and) inseparable from yourself– that you damn well better go forth in real solidarity.

Different Hearts, and a Different Sort of Darkness

Well, I didn’t spot one other person on the trains today with any form of printed reading material; most riders were deeply ensconced in the glowing rectangles in their hands. But I was presented with a charmingly sinister consolation prize over lunch, when a random tuba blast caused me to look up from my reading next to the river. Lo, floating before me was a medium-sized cruiser emblazoned with the words “Joseph Conrad Yacht Club” on its side, playing host to a disorderly half-dozen musicians on the roof who were looking about blearily, instruments (by this time, even the tuba) unused and dangling by their sides.

The vessel chugged quietly past without further incident or evident realization on the musicians’ parts about what was going on– but I had to wonder what the club they represented was all about. Do they go around sliding for fun through eerie streams shrouded in fog that hides justifiably hostile eyes? Try to keep some sort of imperialist impulse simultaneously alive and hamstrung by its own moral deformities?

Whatever the story behind this cruising curiosity, the dislocation caused by its appearance wasn’t at all unpleasant; surrounded as I was on the shore by business guys out-jargoning each other and tourists taking the same selfies every five minutes, the Conradians’ intrusion into the norm was a little, almost Werner-Herzog-worthy, blessing to help wrap up the work week.

Train Catalogue #1

Via Sperantarice on Wikimedia Commons.

Via Sperantarice on Wikimedia Commons.

With a now-heightened desire to pay more attention to members of the train-riding public with their noses in actual books, I may begin making regular notes of what I see. Today: a skinny apparent art student (he had a rolled-up canvas between his knees) in his late teens or early twenties, boring into his folded-up Penguin Classics paperback version of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. He may actually have been paying attention to the text– which made me believe all hope for the future was not lost– but he also spent enough time looking up soulfully from his copy and/or texting that I was unwilling to set aside the possibility that he was carrying the book around as a lady-luring accoutrement. In the youth’s defense, though, I can well imagine a teenage Søren transported to the present and doing the exact same thing– at least without the smartphone. That’s just going too far.

The Published Word, and the Reader Inside

I’ve often wondered how accurate instinctual reactions to the reading preferences of new acquaintances or absolute strangers can really be. Ever since I made the incredibly stupid mistake, ca. a dozen years ago, of studying in public with a textbook labeled “Biblical Hebrew,” I’ve had a sort of heightened awareness of the unwanted attention a simple book in your hand can bring you. In that instance, an overzealous young dude in molester spectacles plopped down in front of me, so that I couldn’t see the back of his jacket covered in flames and asking all viewers to consider where they’d be spending the rest of eternity. He assumed my class materials would make me sympathetic to the condemnations he cheerily started spouting about a multitude of sinners, a barrage that my idealistically inept self tried to stem, with a predictable lack of success.

Every now and then, I have to recall this evangelist’s erroneous expectations, especially when I meet a guy who waxes lyrical about Camus or Updike. After all, one’s own exposure to just a tiny percentage of these authors’ fans doesn’t mean that the rest of their devotees will follow their predecessors’ pattern, and start mansplaining about something or other before the conversation is over.

And I also wonder what sort of first (or only) impression my own reading casts– as, for instance, on the train this morning, where I found myself immersed in an article in The New Yorker that featured a full-page image of a giant sign someone in Trump Country had hung up, featuring Hillary Clinton behind bars. Would the young urbanites temporarily sharing my personal space make easy assumptions about that distressing photograph in my hands– or were my worries my own problem, in that I didn’t trust my fellow passengers to possess the critical awareness that reading about something does not equate to supporting that something? My jumpiness may have been more indicative of what a polarized farce politics in this country has become, and the nastiness that interactions between strangers can take on due to that lamentable situation.

I almost hoped that, if anyone was making any unfavorable assumptions about me (and let’s be honest, if anyone even bothered to notice any individual in the usual pre-work crowd), it was due to the freakish sight of someone attending to entire pages– on actual paper!– populated by nothing but words. In that case, I would simply be consigned to the irrelevance of the old and démodé, a place that, strange to say, I’m not really all that disappointed to inhabit. But in the end, that anxiety lasted all of about one minute, and by the time I’d gotten off at my stop, my passing angst had been overtaken by ten other concerns. I’m still, though, considering a further exploration of how accurately the reading one enjoys reflects the person enjoying it. Input is always welcome.


Keeping It Sane, Channeling an Insane Decade

Wow: it’s been a while. I feel as if I’ve mentioned it before– or maybe the comment is so banal, it just seems to be a given that it should have been made– but I’m amazed, every time I emerge on the other side of work-centered tangles and melodramas, just how much energy and will are sapped, thanks to the needy shenanigans of one’s employer. And amid the latest round of spreadsheet generation, my reading has been limited to 1) those precious, unlikely interludes on rush-hour trains when there’s actually room, in between someone’s armpit and another rider’s intrusive backpack, to hold a piece of literature in front of your face; and 2) the latter half of lunch hours, after having stared mindlessly into the river so that phantom numbers and budget jargon are able to dissipate from one’s vision.

From Wisconsin Death Trip, via Probaway Life Hacks

From Wisconsin Death Trip, via Probaway Life Hacks

It was mostly thanks to this latter window of relaxation– and to a disturbingly prolonged period of temperate weather– that I was able to wend my slow way through Wisconsin Death Trip, historian Michael Lesy’s curated collection of newspaper items and photographs from a certain portion of 1890s Wisconsin. Even before the author’s recap at the end of the book, it was bizarre, in a not-unpleasant way, to be reminded of just how close to, or maybe better, hand-in-hand with, death our (great-)grandparents lived, what with all the arsonists (usually dubbed “incendiaries,” a term I find strangely endearing), suicides, disease-borne wipe-outs of entire families within a day or two, citizens sent up to the madhouse, and general and sudden failure of everything that made life even a tad bit more than a pure fight for bare survival.

Lesy lets this particularly located time speak for itself, instead of summarizing a contradictory-laden decade in the usual manner of historians who’ve only lived very far outside of the period they’re describing– and maybe it’s due to this manner of presentation that gave me such a stark impression of entire communities living without the luxury of full feeling, even within expressions of grief. When your children were likely to die without warning, or full-time drudgery could do nothing but drive you and those around you to murderous and/or suicidal despair, allowing a glimmer of hope to lodge itself somewhere inside was at best a foolish waste of time and at worst a chunk of soul-crushing error.

What I think in the end is this book’s real gem is its ability to present a situation about which this reader, at least, was already well-informed on a factual level– and to confront the onlooker– unavoidably– with a sort of existential experience of that situation. It’s been at least a couple of weeks since I finished the thing, and some of those stern, glassy eyes are still staring out at me, while the accompanying newspaper phraseology that sounds so corny on its own keeps turning into something both distanced and sinister at the same time.

A darkly lovely book, this– and now I’ll have to dive into Lesy’s other work, and hope for more strange revelations. But even though the season has been waning all too slowly for my taste, I’ll soon have to find a new place to bring my sanity back to semi-healthy levels over the noon hour. Either that or invest in some massively expensive arctic wear. We’ll see how things with my day job progress, and how much that communion with the river, whether flowing or frozen, is needed.