Posts Tagged ‘Franz Kafka’

What happens when Joshua Cohen meets Harold Bloom? “The function of criticism now is to abandon politics.”

Thursday, August 16th, 2018
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“Rusticating mentor.”

Novelist Joshua Cohen took a train to Connecticut to interview legendary litcritic Harold Bloom: “As my train dragged its way through Bloom’s native Bronx — and continued upriver through the rising heat of Westchester and into that great humid smog-cloud that covers all of Connecticut beyond the stockbroker coast — I had the unsettling feeling that I’d been cast in some straight-to-YouTube adaptation of one those classic scenes of literary visitation, wherein a young bookish type makes a pilgrimage from the stifling city to pay homage to a rusticating mentor.” 

Here’s how the interview began:

Joshua Cohen: It’s an honor to meet you, Harold. You’re being very generous and kind and —

Harold Bloom: Okay, okay, enough. Sit down.

Cohen: I’m sitting.

“Young bookish type.”

Bloom: I was thinking all day, what questions will you ask? You’re recording?

Cohen: I am. I’m recording on my phone — and we might as well begin with that, because one of the things I wanted to speak with you about was memory. Everyone calls this “a phone,” but my generation in particular considers it as something more like an external brain. It stores our sounds, our images, our books. I need this extra storage space, this extra memory, to compensate for my own. But, famously, you don’t. You remember everything.

Bloom: Our backgrounds are similar, Joshua, but remember: We’ve lived half a century apart. So I can’t speak of technology. But my memory is a freak — this is true. I had it from when I was a little one, growing up in the Bronx, and going to the Sholem Aleichem schools. My first language was Yiddish. There was no English in our house, or even really in our part of the Bronx.

Puzzling.

It continued: 

Bloom: Kafka is the ultimate Jewish puzzle.

Cohen : I’ve always been troubled by his story “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse-Folk” — which was the last story he ever wrote. And it famously ends with a line that says, in essence, to be forgotten is to be redeemed. I know you’ve written about this line: in your interpretation, it’s not a melancholy statement. Because though the singer might be forgotten, her song will be remembered: in fact, the more the song will be remembered, the more the singer can be forgotten, because her art remains secure. I agree with your interpretation, though I’d point out that when I reread this story last year, I found myself baffled and touched by the faith that Kafka has in “the community”: the “mouse-folk” who will preserve Josephine’s song. What do you make of Kafka’s belief in a “community” that doesn’t just preserve its culture, but incarnates it?

Bloom: It makes me unhappy. Whatever Jewish culture is, or is not, it will vanish with the last Jew. And who knows when that will be?

It ended: 

Cohen: And what about criticism — what is its relationship to the preservation, or survival, of our culture? If criticism becomes solely concerned with the political — the here and now — will there be no world-to-come?

Bloom: The function of criticism now is to abandon politics. Whatever the voice that is great in us is, it relates to perception and knowledge.

That’s the preview. Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books here

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017
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Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.

(more…)

“Are most of your stars out?” Eavan Boland offers advice to young writers at Hopwood Awards.

Thursday, June 11th, 2015
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Eavan Boland, the Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities

She oughta know. (Photo courtesy Eavan Boland)

I have an especial fondness for the Avery Hopwood awards at the University of Michigan. During my days as a student in Ann Arbor, I was awarded two – just like playwright Arthur Miller. That might be the only thing we have in common. But the early encouragement meant a lot.

So I was very pleased that Stanford’s Eavan Bolandone of Ireland’s leading poets, delivered this year’s address on April 22. Her subject: what advice can older writers give younger ones? She has her doubts about how far words can go, but I like Nicholas Del Banco‘s comment, which she cited: “the conflicted self is crucial.” He was commenting about novels – but I think the comment embraces all genres (so does she).

Her thoughts on the subject took her back to Dublin – “improbably a city where lightning had struck. In a figurative, artistic way that is.” She described this story between two Irish writers in a a smoking room in a Dublin café, in 1902:

The meeting took place on O’Connell Street which was then Sackville Street. It was a wide street in a garrison city which was still under British rule and would remain so for fourteen years. And all of this in a country, which was considered a backwater of Europe. Not a country that people – except for a few deep inside its secret societies – held out much hope for. The meeting was between two men, two writers, who had never met before. One was in his middle thirties and one a mere twenty years of age.

The two men were William Yeats and the very young James Joyce. And they were not equals. Yeats was already an iconic figure. He had founded the Irish theater. He had written admired poetry. Joyce had yet to write anything important. When I think of the hazards of this sort of advice I think of what happened next. Before any conversation could be started, James Joyce leaned across the table to William Yeats and said, “You are too old for me to help you.”

Then she told her own story, also in Dublin, decades later when she was a student at Trinity College, studying English literature in a place where poetry was treated as “a canonical fact.” She had no idea that Irish poetry had “been forced to shine out of a darkness with effort and pain.”

rua2And then at the age of 18 I picked up a book called The Hidden Ireland by a writer I had never heard of, Daniel Corkery. It had been published in 1925. The book follows the shattered narrative of the Cromwellian clearances in Ireland in the 18th century. It alights in their aftermath in a small part of Gaelic Munster, which is called Slieve Luachra, a mountainous area on the Cork Kerry border. Corkery writes about poets such as Aodhagán Ó Rathaille and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin. He records that they spoke the Irish language and wrote their poetry in it. That they were witnesses to the destruction of that language and the breaking apart of the Bardic order. “What Pindar is to Greece, what Burns is to Scotland  … that and much more is Eoghan Ruadh to Ireland,” wrote Corkery.

That evening as I read on I could see what Robert Penn Warren meant when he said “the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see.” I stopped on one page, and at one passage. Everything I was or hoped to be listened to what those words said.

Here is the passage the passage from Corkery that turned her on and, perhaps, changed her life: “Then we must also remember that these poets were simple men, living as peasants in rural surroundings; some of them, probably, never saw a city; not only this, but they were all poor men, very often sore-troubled where and how to find shelter, clothing, food, at the end of a day’s tramping. Their native culture is ancient, harking back to pre-Renaissance standards; but there is no inflow of books from outside to impregnate it with new thoughts. Their language is dying: around them is the drip, drip of callous decay: famine overtakes famine, or the people are cleared from the land to make room for bullocks. The rocks in hidden mountain clefts are the only altars left to them; and teaching is a felony.”

“Not to excuse, but to explain them, are these facts mentioned; for their poetry, though doubtless the poorest chapter in .the book of Irish literature, is in itself no poor thing that needs excuse: it is, contrariwise, a rich thing, a marvelous inheritance, bright with music, flushed with colour, deep with human feeling. To see it against the dark world that threw it up, is to be astonished, if not dazzled.”

Kafka

Merciless obsessions.

Eavan Boland continues: “I can remember where I was when I read this. Even now I ask myself – why was I so moved by an assertion nobody could prove; about poets from another world, most of them lost to time and history? I believe I was moved because it was the first time I had come across a bold statement about the importance of the artist ‘s life. It was the first time I had read that language and literature could testify in and through time; that such testimony could pierce the darkness of a history. It was the first time anyone had expressed the dignity of the life I hoped I would live.”

The rest led her to “a life lived in and through language, with all its challenge and reward. This won’t change and has never changed.” Let me close with some of more of the great advice from great writers she cited. This one, from the Prague-born German-language author Franz Kafka: “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

"Lame" himself

“Were you busy writing your heart out?”

And this piece closer to home, from America’s J.D. Salinger: “Do you know what you will be asked when you die? Let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished – I think only poor Soren K. will get asked that. I’m so sure you’ll only get asked two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.”

 

The president of forgetting

Thursday, December 4th, 2014
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kundera

Milan Kundera remembers, anyway.

“If Franz Kafka was the prophet of a world without memory, Gustáv Husák is its creator. After T.G. Masaryk, who is known as the liberator-president (all his monuments without exception have been demolished) … Husák, the seventh president of my country, is known as the president of forgetting.

“The Russians brought him into power in 1969. Not since 1621 has the history of the Czech people experienced such a massacre of culture and thought. Everybody everywhere assumes that Husák simply tracked down his political opponents. In fact, however, the struggle with the political opposition was merely an excuse, a welcome opportunity the Russians took to use their intermediary for something more substantial.

“I find it highly significant in this connection that Husák dismissed some 145 Czech historians from universities and research institutes. (Rumor has it that for each of them – secretly, as in a fairy tale – a new monument to Lenin sprang up.) One of those historians, my all but blind friend Milan Hübl, came to visit me one day in 1971 in my tiny apartment on Bartolomejska Street. We looked out the window at the spires of the Castle and were sad.

Gustáv_Husák_-_oříznuto

That’s him. The prez.

“‘The first step in liquidating a people,’ said Hübl, ‘is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.’

‘What about language?’

‘Why would anyone bother to take it from us? It will soon be a matter of folklore and die a natural death.’

Was that hyperbole dictated by utter despair?

Or is it true that a nation cannot cross a desert of organized forgetting?

None of us knows what will be. One thing, however, is certain: in moments of clairvoyance the Czech nation can glimpse its own death at close range. Not as an accomplished fact, not as the inevitable future, but as a perfectly concrete possibility. Its death is at its side.”

– From Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

St Charles Bridge Prague

“We looked out the window at the spires of the Castle and were sad.” (Photo: Jorge Royan)

 

 

Christopher Plummer playing Vladimir Nabokov talking about Franz Kafka.

Monday, September 17th, 2012
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The genuine article.

It’s not quite Vladimir Nabokov (witness the video of the real thing on video here), but rather the actor Christopher Plummer takes a shot at performing the Russian author, who taught at Cornell University  from 1948 to 1959.

There doesn’t appear to be much online about Peter Medak‘s short television film from 1989, Nabokov on Kafka, which dramatizes Nabokov’s lectures on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.  Despite NEH funding and TV airing, this film seems to have pretty much disappeared from public awareness.  Certainly I had never heard of it before.  Anyone know anything about this quirky show?

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for pointing it out.

 

Joshua Landy: “Literary texts are not cudgels but weight machines.”

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012
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"Literature as Rorschach test, simulation space, participatory wrestling match" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Why read hard books? the Guardian‘s Stephen Abell asks.

Joshua Landy rushes to the rescue with equally hard answers in his new book, How to Do Things with Fictions.  Josh is nothing if not a lively thinker.  Abell writes:  “His answer, when shorn of its sometimes uncomfortably scratchy fleece of critical theory, is simple: complicated literature (like green vegetables) is good for you. Landy believes that certain texts provide training for our minds, by actively working on the reader to expand their mental capacity: ‘each work, in other words, contains within itself a manual for reading, a set of implicit instructions on how it may best be used.'”

Frankly, I like the even more simple answer he gave me in his Stanford office, nearly two years ago: “Spending time in the presence of works of great beauty can powerfully change your life.”  In fact, I think the article I wrote goes some way towards answering the questions I posed last week about defending the humanities:  “The Cambridge-educated Landy rejected the notion that literature is morally improving. Instead, great works ‘enable us to clarify ourselves to ourselves.’ He offered ‘literature as Rorschach test, literature as simulation space, literature as participatory wrestling match.’ He advocated moving away from the ‘stranglehold of narrativity,’ which literature shares with biography and history, and turning to ‘a more lyrical mode of thinking.'”

The case studies from his new book range across five countries and 2,500 years: Plato‘s Gorgias and Symposium, St. Mark‘s gospel, Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, a sonnet by Stéphane Mallarmé, and Samuel Beckett’s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable.  Abell writes:

Before we get to the evidence, we receive a breathless summary of various other literary theories that seek to explain the purpose of fiction. Landy is fond of lists and numbers, and posits “13 ways of looking at fiction”, which include three main schools of thought: the “exemplary” (novels as morals; read Clarissa and become a better person); the “affective” (freeing our emotions; see Kafka‘s wonderful observation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”); and the “cognitive”. Landy spends most time on the “cognitive”, subdividing it – I think – into four other sections, but basically categorising it as the view that novels are “directly educational”.

Landy’s own theory, of fiction as a thought-trainer, comes close to this notion, but he exerts himself considerably to condemn those “meaning-mongers” who insist that fictions provide the key to straightforward verities. He is also dismissive of those of us who only want to dwell on the enjoyment of being told a story, or what he calls “the glorious uselessness of fiction, its ostensible inability to yield anything beyond pleasure”.

Abell hints strongly at the end of the piece that he reads books for the plots.  But Josh Landy’s description of one case study, the Gospel of St. Mark, during a colloquium two years ago, was downright spellbinding:

Landy offered an example from his forthcoming book, focusing on Jesus’ parables, as told in the Gospel according to Mark: “The big mistake that people have made across the centuries is to think that what’s on offer in the parables is some kind of message. But the parables do not seek to teach; they seek to train.”

The parables, often obscure, were meant to move readers of Mark’s texts from the literal to the metaphoric, Landy said, a shift that “implies that nothing we see is inherently significant, since the entire visible realm is merely a symbol for a higher plane of experience.”

“To move away from literal language to figurative language is to move away from the body and to the spirit,” Landy said.

“Literary texts do not bludgeon us into submission,” Landy said. “They are not obligations but offers. They are not cudgels but weight machines. Their effects are neither automatic nor inevitable.”

Read the rest of Abell’s interesting article here.  Or read my story here.