In my supremely dorky universe, one of the best forms of joy is encountering a deliciously addictive book right after having dragged around a real literary ball-n-chain for a while. I’m happy to report that, after having conquered Mating midway through the holiday weekend, I jumped directly into Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick– and barely put it down until wrapping it up last night.
I waited a good long while to be in the right mood for what I thought I would encounter with Dick; months ago, a review had me thinking I’d be delving deeply into the inane intricacies of romance, and even though its approach sounded alluring, I didn’t feel as if I could deal with all that tension that somehow never gets beyond adolescence.
Admittedly, the narrator’s (Chris’) infatuation with a person she barely knows takes her down some weird paths. But as we go along with her, something amazing emerges, something I’m still not at all sure how to describe or even approach investigatively. Because this book turns into an exploration of what it means to be and be viewed as a woman (or maybe even just a female human body), particularly in the worlds of art and/or academia up through 1990s America. Yes, it was published twenty years ago, and no, my naive college self did not inhabit the often-risqué and -risky environments in which the narrator found herself. But in spite of the differences in concrete situations, some sort of shared, connection-inducing Thing (experience? emotion?) resulted in my feeling as if Kraus had my back, and I, retroactively, hers– that this disembodied volume of words on paper was an offering of support and understanding across a the space of a couple of decades.
Part of that affinity may lie in the fact that Dick is a (mostly) epistolary novel; fan as I am of letter-writing, the genre alone meant we were probably off to a good start. So much of this account is purely about expressing oneself to and before a beloved other– a phenomenon I’ve touched on before, especially in relation to Kafka. Some of Chris’ hints (or declarations) about why she continues this seemingly delusional exercise hit exactly at my own desires just to be heard and known by another person: “But I wanted to tell you how exhilarating it felt to step out of the truck and feel the cold dark air around Stony Creek’s four corners…”(1) Just to be able to share the littlest spark in an uneventful day, to share your wonder with someone– it’s a desire the writer acknowledged in her previous letter on the part of her husband, who, she says, “was eager to share something, so he shared her enthusiasm for the Adirondacks and two days later they bought a ten room farmhouse…”(2)
But even as she offers up her impressions to (or forces them upon) the object of her affection, unlike Kafka, Chris openly admits the sort of futility, or at least disconnect, in what she’s doing: “I’m torn between maintaining you as an entity to write to and talking with you as a person. Perhaps I’ll let it go.”(3) As she continues writing, though, and even as one bubble after another is (sometimes heartlessly) burst, Chris realizes that the image of the reader she’s (mostly) created has provided her a sort of sounding board, maybe even a source of permission, to understand herself, her history, the histories and situations of so many others in her own place/s and time/s. It’s a sort of self-knowledge and -determination that can even confront and overcome, though not without pain, the book’s brilliant ending, which scraped out my insides with its perfect cruelty.(4)
I’ve got a couple of pages’ worth of notes tucked into the book– and plan on going back to them and really trying to ferret out how Kraus did what she did, and what exactly it is that makes me feel so strongly about this novel, or extended letter, or whatever it is. It’s OK if I never solve that mystery– but chasing it around is bound to be heartening.(5)
(1) Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006), 93.
(2) Ibid., 92.
(3) Ibid., 130. It’s not clear whether “it” refers to a potential phone conversation, (the pursuit of) Dick himself, and/or the entire letter-writing project altogether.
(4) Not since the original Twin Peaks series have I witnessed a more unfair, yet beautifully apt, ending.
(5) I also haven’t seen the new series based upon Kraus’ book, and only recently found out it was in the works. My guess is it’ll be a while before I check it out; I want to let the appreciation of the original linger for a while, before I compare it to anyone else’s interpretation of it.
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.
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.
Let’s talk infelicitous combinations of artistic form. I’m thinking in particular of Philip Glass’ musical adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” which I saw last night. Setting? Small, intimate, and great. Cast? Pretty good. But in the end, both props and players could only benefit so much from the raw material available to them, namely, Glass’ score and libretto.
It’s not that the music and lyrics themselves were bad*– it’s just that this particular composer, given the singularly thick nature of his work (even when it’s being minimalist!) never should have tried to set such an efficiently-told tale to music. Frantic, repetitive crescendos, musical signals that something ominous is taking place: it’s all OK for a soundtrack– especially of the American variety– but all the elaboration and padding that must of necessity go into operatic productions… well, they’re all wrong for that unique brand of sparse-yet-laden weirdness Kafka’s so good at.
Could anyone do a good job putting this story into musical form? I don’t think so; it just wasn’t made, say I, to handle forms of sensory input ancillary to the word. I could maybe, maybe envision “In the Penal Colony” existing as a well-executed short film– but even there, I don’t feel comfortable with the possibility.
The piece reminded me of other literary greats that should have been, or should be, left untouched by film directors; I found On the Road predictably disastrous, and I’m terrified to think what’s going to happen to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, if filming really does come to completion on that project. Infinite Jest? Please. Based on what he did with The Tempest, I can see Peter Greenaway having a self-indulgent go at it, but I hope he doesn’t get any ideas. If someone could make a cinematic version of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves as scary and intelligent as the book, I’d be thrilled– but again, there should be some sort of test one must pass before even thinking about doing such a thing.
Ah, well. In short, there’s usually a reason why music or the visual arts can convey some things so much better than any number of words– but then again, there’s often no substitute for spoken/written language well-used. I’m glad I got to see the musical venture I did last night– but I won’t be sad if the notes fade from memory altogether, never to be reawakened.
* OK, there were times when the words seemed to be exemplifying how the theater of the obvious should function, but overall, they were no worse than those of any other musical.
Part of the delicious frustration of aphorisms, I suppose, is that, when done well, just one of those philosophical one-(or two-)liners can stay with you for days. Yes– it’s wonderful to have a rich, long-lasting, often coy, kernel to chew on. But sometimes, the presence keeping you company proves unyielding, not very helpful in its attempt to make you use your brain in unconventional ways, to get you to stretch your imaginative power into new territories.
One of these little morsels that’s been repeatedly popping up to say hi over the last couple of days comes from Kafka’s (Zürau) Aphorisms, namely, #101:
Sin always comes openly, and in a form apprehensible to the senses. It walks on its roots and doesn’t need to be plucked out of the ground.*
It’s the latter part of that assertion– that “Sin… walks on its roots”– that I find so layered and imagistic and interesting, only partially due to the vision of sin as some variety of flora (in my mind, a very thin sort of plant, daintily holding up its lower leaves like a skirt as its roots take it zipping off over the horizon). Might Kafka be saying that, as opposed to the mysterious, rococo trappings we always give it, with sin, what we see is, instead, what we get– only that, and nothing more? The first sentence seems to hold that sin has no need to dissemble about its own appearance– and so, do we have any excuse, other than our own will not to see it, for not recognizing it?
Additionally, because, thanks to its roots, sin is apparently ambulant, it may therefore have a sort of built-in defense mechanism to use against those who would seek to deny it sustenance and life, to remove it completely from the realm of the living. I like the image, period, of sin scuttling away on its roots- but then again, these are strange roots of which it’s making use; because they aren’t grounded,** aren’t dependent on a fixed location, can they really be said to be roots, as in those that fix us within an origin or foundation, or to any particular source of being and formation? Perhaps it is because sin is so locationally freewheeling that it’s able to morph into accord with so many different (local) situations and appear so “openly… to the senses;” perhaps its very homelessness– its rootlessness– makes it at home everywhere, and therefore, frees it from the need of the in-depth geographical knowledge needed to obtain scarce nutrients required for the more place-bound.
Yeah. And that was only one of just over a hundred little gems that sucked me in. I don’t think I’ll have to be worried for a long while about not having anything to think about.
* Franz Kafka, Aphorisms, transl. Willa and Edwin Muir and Michael Hoffmann (New York: Schocken Books, 2015), 100.
** I do realize certain plants have roots that go anywhere but in the ground– but existential rootedness, as I’m talking about here, would seem to require some sort of connection, even commitment, to a particular origin.
I stood around stupidly this evening at what I hope will have been the final holiday party of the season, that gathering of the sort required by professional courtesy, and at which I can’t imagine anyone just being oneself and having a genuinely enjoyable, not to mention all-out fun, time. As I tried to control my fidgeting and mounting social anxiety, I wondered at what point this sort of thing, this pressure to use a noted date on the calendar as an excuse to make employees spend even more time together than usual, began. I’m sure there was some form of toga-clad shindig among all the rhetors and scribes and legislators back in the day, thrown on one of the significant Ides by some socially climbing patron or would-be populist who nearly drove himself nuts with the preparations, and then fretted until the entire thing was over, while his guests calculated how much longer they’d have to linger before it became acceptable to leave.
And what would this mandatory fun look like in fictional realms that otherwise don’t address this sort of non-party directly? Holiday faculty-staff minglers at Hogwarts would probably seem like more of the same, just in party clothes, since everyone pretty much lived together all the time anyway. Did anyone ever have a little too much butter beer and, out of sheer boredom and desperation, end up in a closet with some pale clerk, trying desperately to come up afterwards with a great spell that would erase the experience from both their memories? What would a seasonal fête at Kafka’s insurance agency have looked like, and would Franz even have gone? He was a big cheese there, and I’m sure such things could have provided him with plenty of fodder.
I had planned on writing a post about some great phrasing in Ovid, who’s turning out to be a super-gifted storyteller with his Metamorphoses. But instead, my brain has been so bombarded this entire week with office mixers and dutiful attendance at various organizational bashes that my mental will is really not my own, and all I want to do is sleep for record amounts of time, and hopefully wake up on the other side of the holiday season, bell-laden soundtracks and tables of desserts heavy on the colored sprinkles behind me.
It’s not the best idea to be blogging from work, for a variety of well-known reasons. But the one that’s currently standing out for me is the absence of the text I’m so eager to discuss that I’m going to go for it without the ability to reference page numbers or relevant phrases, or to look at scrawled notes, and thus avoid forgetting and/or misremembering something. Who said I was afraid to walk on the wild side?
Modiano’s Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue turned out to be a remarkably easy read, “easy” meaning the French was uncomplicated and clear, in the same way that Kafka’s very precise German makes it a breeze to dip into his texts in the original language– a pleasant surprise for someone who tends to pack so many layers into so little space. My guess is, I’ll give the Modiano a quick second skim-through, because I picked up on and want to look more closely at three main ideas threading themselves throughout the narrative: a concern with “points of reference” as anchoring a person’s or society’s life; the eternal return; and the disappearance of foundational and/or meaning-rich places, courtesy of encroaching moneyed and market-driven forces.
That first motif, or, rather, the attempt to find and hold onto points of reference in a larger project of figuring out who one is and where one stands, is, of course, exceedingly complicated by the third reality, which tends to bypass questions of selfhood in favor of profit. When an establishment or building or square, on which you’ve grounded the core meaning of your self, is gutted or razed, transformed or destroyed so quickly and dispassionately it’s as if it never even existed, you can’t help but be visited by visions of finitude or fatality or ultimate emptiness– or, what may be a good thing, learn how to cease depending on externals as constitutive of identity. That may all be good and well for an individual– but is a society or culture affected differently by the demise, whether willed or accepted or not, of its creations, its visible and tangible monuments to some sort of identity that makes that group definably who it is, and not some other? As global capital flows make a newly developed block in Paris look increasingly like another one in Milwaukee, does anything fundamental change in either or both of the communities in which the physical transformation has taken place?
Going beyond the influence of exchangeable things, do people count as externals? Do experiences, which mostly feature place and context as essential parts? When someone is taken out of, or extracts him- or herself from, your life, what does that mean for you, an interdependent being who cannot exist in isolation from others? Memories and all of their components, including beings and objects long gone from our physical presence, stay with and shape us, whether we like that fact or not.
Maybe that’s why the question of the eternal return showed up late in the book, although I’ll have to go back and see if I can discover whether the concept is used for different and/or subtler purposes. I didn’t detect much of the Nietzschean in its presence– but then again, you never know what will emerge on a second read, and make you feel like an idiot for not having grasped it the first time around.
I’ll finish this post with a completely patched-on ending: a note about what got me reading this book in the first place, namely, an eighty-something-year-old woman who decided she’s going to learn French, and whose teacher recommended she do so partly by checking out this particular work by Modiano. An inspiration? I’d say so. Never quit, and never allege you’re too old to learn something new, even if it’s an entire, unfamiliar language system.
One thing I’ll say for this extensive investigation of Kafka’s life I’ve gotten myself into: it’s helping to dispel longstanding romantic illusions about the possibilities and effects of passionate letter exchanges between far-flung individuals. Throughout most of my life, I would have killed for the relationship-by-letter maintained by Kafka and Felice Bauer– and a few times, I’ve gotten blindly sucked into lesser versions of that deluded sort of companionship, furthering an already tenacious tendency to idealize certain new (male) acquaintances by allowing myself to be swept away in the imagery and assumptions that are created when two people have nothing but the written word– or sometimes Skype, even– between them, nothing to tell each other what this other person is like among friends and strangers; whether he walks in a hurry and leaves you to fend and catch up for yourself, or wants nothing more than to stroll by your side; whether or not he shovels his food down in haste and ignores everything else, including human presence… As became evident between the author and his now-and-again fiancée, disembodied confessions and explorations can be beyond wonderful– but all too often, provide no grounds for anything real, leaving both correspondents at a disappointed and silence-filled loss when actually forced to face each other in the flesh.
Spying on the past of these famously creative others has been a sort of relief, a way of setting myself free of blame for past, too-lengthy long-distance relationships maintained by just this sort of intense lack of corporeality. But even as the day has involved letting go of epistolary desires and old baggage, a bit of adolescent dream fulfillment has wafted in in compensation. Shortly after arriving back in town this afternoon, I opened the windows for some yoga– and my stretching was accompanied early on by the faint strains of a saxophone somewhere down on the street. I never figured out exactly where it was coming from, even though the musician kept it up all afternoon, and stopped only after a gentle rain moved in after dinner. It was the sort of scene I’d always dreamed about being privy to, in big-city life; the real icing on the teen-fantasy cake would have been an apartment featuring a fire escape onto which I could step out and enjoy the tunes, especially if it had been going on at three in the morning. But I’m beyond trying to maintain such a schedule, and large windows are enough for me, especially if they allow me to hear all the life below.
But I still wouldn’t mind having someone to tell about it all, or to listen silently alongside me.