Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Why Kafka Is Overrated: 12 Reasons Why We Should Never Read Kafka's Major Works

Franz Kafka, sainted by literati, is the single most overrated writer of the twentieth century.

1. Franz Kafka's novels and stories are in fact not novels and stories at all; they are sketches, incidents, dream-records. We cannot call Kafka a novelist unless we stretch these terms to include incidents without meaning and random dream-records. Granted, we can include as a experimental novel such as "Tristram Shandy", but that book has the virtue of being both a good book and completed, virtues Kafka lacks.

2. All Kafka's major works are incomplete. We can only judge the start and middle of a piece of writing accurately if we have the ending, because the ending is what gives the middle and start their meanings. But we do not have the ending because Kafka did not write the pieces. Therefore, we cannot judge Kafka's major work accurately, because we do not have a complete major work.

3. We can however, judge Kafka's workmanship. Kafka is self-evidently a terrible craftsman. If a man makes chairs, and he is considered the best chair maker of his time, we would need to sit on his chairs when he is done. And if a woman knits woollen hats, we would need to have a hat which sits on the head, instead of falling off. And if a group of people make a ship, we would need to have a complete hull or else the ship would sink. Likewise, Kafka's craftsmanship is a failure: Kafka's "novels" are chairs that cannot be sat on, hats that do not stay on, and ships that sink. By contrast, "Anna Karenina" is a novel which can be tested from any direction and provide satisfaction and interest.

4. Kafka is also not a good host to his readers. He subjects his readers to mean, vicious, negative, manipulative, unkind, and distorted views. He tries to make his readers suffer. He misleads his readers to suppose they are reading a novel when in fact it is a record of ideas and incidents. It seems sure that Kafka never intend to have a readership, since he asked for his work to be destroyed and destroyed much of it himself. By contrast, the best writers treat their readers with respect and consideration.

5. Kafka is a terrible philosopher. He has no clear view of life, cannot define or explain any central view or doctrine, and uses negative emotions in place of reason or logic. He makes no attempt to suggest a happy, wise, or healthy way to live. He does not love wisdom. He demonstrates a love of violence, instead. The Philosopher in his dialogs consistently uses Socrates to dismantle pretentions to wisdom such as Kafka uses, from small dialog about courage like Charmides, about friendship like Laches, and about wisdom like Alcibiades.

6. Kakfa is glamorized by his adoring readers as absurd and existential. But these fancy word choices, when the projected glamor is taken away, change meanings. "Absurd" in Kafka's writing really means the same thing as "nonsense". And "existential" in Kafka's writing really comes down to "meaningless and depressing". And a mood does not make a thing meaningful: just because Kafka's writing is depressing nonsense, doesn't mean that it is philosophy. The fact that Kafka's writing is depressing nonsense simply means that it is depressing nonsense, and nothing else.

7. Kafka uses language which says that a thing is so, then that it is not so. Then he uses images which suggest that a person is kind then unkind, or good then evil, or powerful then weak. In other words, Kafka uses language badly. We can dress this up as "paradox", "metaphor", "insight into the human condition", but the fact remains that in talking about a thing, we must agree on the meanings of it before we can have actual communication. When Kafka not only fails to clearly use a term, image, or character to have a fixed significance, he is also failing to communicate. Therefore, Kafka is a poor communicator. See William Empsom's famous study, Seven Kinds of Ambiguity, for an exploration of how to provide clear and unconfusing poetic ambiguity.

8. At all the basic elements of the novelists art, Kafka's "novels" are a signal failure. These elements are: characterisation, dialog, story, plot, and theme. The characters do not grow. The dialog (which does feature good naturalistic diction), does not advance the plot or reveal character. The story has no beginning, middle, nor end, because we know these novels are unfinished. The plot has no tension because nothing is at stake (we already know K. in the Trial will die, and that K. in the Castle never get a solution). Finally, there is no theme, because the nothing in it has meaning. So in all the basic elements of the novelist's art, Kafka is a conclusive failure.

9. Kafka focuses on expressing negative emotions of guilt, fear, confusion, negativity, meaninglessness, and apathy. Kafka therefore is a bad moral and poor emotional example.

10. Kafka focuses on criticising society. He criticises the law, bureaucracy, government, and nations. He never praises or appreciates or builds up, but only tears down. He has no solutions or even answers to the things he has criticised. He has expertise in the law and bureaucracy, but expresses no positive aspects. Therefore, for anyone wanting a positive role in the world, he is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.

11. Kakfa enables his readers to indulge in negative over-intellectualization and feel justified and righteous. Kafka empowers readers to become resentful and bitter against authority instead of seeking the good and working through the bad. Kafka empowers readers to project their own notions onto his work, and thereby enables people to have a good mental masturbate using his work. Therefore, Kafka's emotionally negative and morally negative words are a pornography of the spirit.

12. Finally, the "novels" need not exist. Hamlet cannot kill his step father for many reasons: perhaps he desires his mother as Freud suspected, or perhaps he secretly believes that his step father is in fact his real paternal father, or perhaps he has mental illness. But K. in the Trial can move home, change jobs, or leave town if he does not like the legal treatment, and K. in the Castle can simply go home and not worry about the crazy foreigners if he likes. Unlike Hamlet, these "novels" can be called off at any moment by their main characters! So the lack of succifient motive for the characters' actions in Kafka leads us to question their possibility. The "novels" need not exist because the mainspring of the characters, their motives, are insufficient to establish their reality.

There we have it. To summarise, Kafka's incomplete, poorly-crafted, nonsensical, depressing, morally and emotionally misleading, poorly communicated, unnecessary, and spiritually pornographic major works can now be ignored and thrown away.

The "novels" of Franz Kafka have been in the world for almost a century and can now be relegated to the library stacks and trashcans of people's personal libraries. His work showed some small promise, and this promise is not only not delivered on, but the existing works deliver downsides in spades. 

I hope after reading this, many others will feel happy to avoid having anything to do with these bad books. 

I do recommend a few of Kafka's most famous short stories, one of the which, Metamorphosis, provides the world with the word "kafkaesque" and is a wonderful riff on Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why We Should Not Read Marcus Goodrich's Novel Delilah

Delilah is a novel about a United States Navy destroyer just before the start of World War Two. Goodrich takes the reader into the day by day workings of the ship and the hearts and minds of the men. 

The book has echoes of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' (a study of human brutality) and 'Lord Jim' (pride and prestige as a 'code' of integrity) and uses symbolic and rhetoric means developed by Melville via Shakespeare (the ship Delilah as a woman, the stars as a symbol of the transcendent, the ocean as the engagement with the feminine flow of aliveness, from which the men themselves are cut off by duty and pride). 

Notable to a reader, but irrelevant from the novel itself, is the 2013 point of view: the colonialism and imperialism of the crew regarding their filipino peons; the shocking absence of any workplace health and safety regulations; the abusive and macho culture of unquestioning obedience; the differing notions of professionalism and the greater predominance of notions of personal integrity over professionalism; and the fragile and superficial ego structures of the men on board. This comparison is drawn not to say the world of 2013 is so much better, but simply to point the differences.

The key to the novel is the fragility and vulnerability of the men to the ship, nature, and their own instincts. Specifically, the men are driven by pride and prestige. Ego and posturing predominates. Rage and lustfulness off ship erupt when the pressure of egotism gets too great. The entire system is intransparent and ritualistic; the men are slaves, and must resort to pathetic signs of personal dignity like where their cot is placed to gain some sense of personal significance. All intimate communication is censored dramatically by egotism, and friendship is a function of role and status rather than common virtues or interests. 

This sense of hysterical masculinity often comes to the surface: each character ruminates over interminable fears of dishonor and considerations of pride. Goodrich shows these ruminations in detail; this feeling of tension and eventually hysteria is the result of the physically unsafe and emotionally unfeeling reality of the ship life, where no due regard for the body or soul is given.

The writing is interesting, as is the tone. Let's examine the writing first. The diction is simple and poetic and manly. But the sentences are longer when the writer wishes to express emotion, and shorter when he is reporting. The downside of the writing is that the same point will be repeated two or three times. Sometimes the effect is of an incantation, creating an emotional connection; but mostly a slowing, an impatience, and a slight distancing of sympathy from the characters are the effect. It is a book that demands leisure, but frankly, as we'll see later in this review, it does not warrant that investment of time.

Now, to the tone. Reportage alternates with interior reflection. Consistently Goodrich's interior writing refers to the pride and ego dominating the souls of the men. Their inner lives, it seems to me, are impoverished and narrow, but Goodrich seems to find interesting the tedium of his characters' posturings for status. I do not.

There is a passing reference in chapter 12 to a liberal education. Warrington stashes a variety of good and great books in his locker. This is not to suppose this incident will be used in any way, but simply to allow Goodrich to establish that in chapter 13 that Warrington reads the Meditations of the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, which in turn establishes that he is a man of virtue, which in turn establishes that he is as tough, prideful, and ego-driven as the rest of the men. The only difference from the other men is that Warrington is prideful in an intellectual way rather than an instinctual way.

The overarching story is of the preparations of the ship Delilah for World War Two. Until the second last page the reason is unknown for these preparations by the crew. They flail about with no idea what's going on for the whole book. Delilah, the ship, goes about some missions, gets refitted; the book features some episodes of brutish incidents which might be salvaged from the whole as short stories. In the end some sailor, O'Connel, suffers from alcoholic insanity and has to be violently subdued by an officer, Fitzpatrick. 

Does that sound like a novel to you? It sounds like half a novel. In the opening inscription of the novel, Goodrich promised and failed to deliver on part two, the actual ending with World War Two. This is like cutting the Battle of Borodino out of Tolstoy's War and Peace, or excluding the hunt of Moby Dick from Melville's novel. It is the fatal weakness in an otherwise strong, masculine novel.

Let's examine Delilah clearly as a book among books: if we have two people offering us a novel, one complete and one incomplete; and if the person with the incomplete novel promises to complete it and does not complete it, then which person should we trust? Clearly the one who has completed their novel. And the one who has not completed the novel has in fact not written a novel, in the sense of a whole novel, but only written half of a novel.  

Marcus Goodrich at the start of his novel Delilah promised the reader he would finish the novel, and he did not keep his promise. He lived fifty more years after the book was published and he failed to keep his promise. It is a good half of a novel, but it is not a whole novel, and cannot be judged as a whole novel.

So, what we need to do with Marcus Goodrich's Delilah is not read it. We should avoid Delilah not because it is not good, but because the writer did not keep his promise to the reader to complete the book. The writer did not keep his promises in good faith with the reader, and therefore should not have readers. I recommend avoiding this book and reading any of the other magnificent books of the period but this one.

I will conclude with a magnificent piece of Proustian writing from near the end of the book, a moment of calm before O'Connel's alcoholic insanity from the character that seems to bear some of the writers' consciousness, Warrington:

"He turned his gaze upward to the sky in a gesture that might have appeared to an onlooker as one aimed at detecting the cause of the intimidation. His gaze encountered no fabulous, predatory hovering, nothing but the infinite blackness; save where a small, sharply defined, uneven rift in it disclosed, as above the top of some chasm in the universe, and at a greater distance that he ever had imagined or dreamed, a few eerily vivid stars that gave no light, that hung there, in the sombre blue clarity above that unthinably deep hole in black nothingness, looking awesomely, three-dimensionally like monstrous speck of reflective dust, like spheres, glittering and iridescent, of frozen ash, like swirls of flaming gas towering higher than the world, all unconvincingly decreased by the illusion of the visible distance, frightful in itself, to a size no greater than that of animal eyes peering from thickets on summer nights."

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reading Elio Vittorini's Masterpiece, 'Conversations In Sicily': A Review.

I've just read the famous novel by Elio Vittorini, Conversations In Sicily. 

The words of this novel echo in the heart after they are spoken. We feel the consciousness of the narrator, Silvestro, resonate in the events of the story. This is set up very simply in the opening pages by contrasting the mice of dissatisfaction eating away at the hero's soul within him with the actual cheese he is eating outside him. Silvestro begins to awaken spiritually to the world as he travels and we wake up with him on the train. How many times has a short holiday woken up the senses and soul again? The poetry of the opening is beautiful.

And after all, the events of the trip over to Sicily are very mild events, but frightful in their way. We experience indirectly the horrors of fascism and we understand the risks the author is taking, the courage in these simple repeated words of the travellers he is travelling with.

Because when he is on the train with the two government agents, With Whiskers and Without Whiskers, we feel the reign of terror that comes with fascism. Then we contrast it against the sufferings of the malaria victim and the big Lombard, the common people and the bourgeois folk. I can most readily identify with the big Lombard, with their casual protest against political repression and their sense of material comfort and ease. The poverty of the early twentieth century Italians is alien, but the politics are not. 

Also alien to us is the sense of provicialism: these men act as if united Italy is the whole world unto itself, and the Italian man is the measure of the human: they characterize men of different cities as different human types, but the sense of the national Italian lack of unity is palpable. The center of it all, Rome, is almost never mentioned. We in the West have lived under federalism for so long that the apparatus of bureaucracy and big business, and the regular, unwelcome intrusions of government and business into everyday life are regarded as normal now. The chaos of the age immediately before us seems strange now compared to the long peace of Western 21st century life.

When Silvestro is visiting his mother, the tension and humor is exquisite. The psychodynamics of the mother, who conflates her husband with her father in her memories, and the contrast between Silvestro's memory of his childhood and his mother's memory, have an exquisite, universal, and painfully tender irony. There is no place for sentiment here, and the stories of his mother bearing children and having sex are recounted with straightfaced and respectful humor. 

The sensibility and wit of these pages with Silvestro and his mother are delicate and bold: the color is broad and operatic. I cannot think of their equal outside Stendhal's "Charterhouse of Parma", or some few pages of Balzac. 

Beside these pages, Benjamin Constant's "Adolphe" seems a juvenile imitation of a romance. Why does French literature borrow vigor from Italian literature? And why, in turn, does the more sophisticated and complex northern Italian literature seem to refer back again and again to the rude south of Italy for its vitality? Why refer back to Sicily?

The answer seems to be at least in part in the historical and geographical position of Sicily, which has been among the most hotly contested pieces of real estate throughout recorded history; consequently the Sicilian people carry inside themselves the Gordian knot of history with a kind of helpless resignation, unable to undo it nor to avoid adding to it, but yearning to cut through it in one blow and return to the life of the senses only. The epicurean ideal wars against the stoic necessity, perhaps. Perhaps, maybe, the historical vulnerability of Sicily to extreme criminality in its politics is part of the urge to cut through history and free human nature once and for all from ideas.

One reads in Thucydides the ill-fated expedition against Syracuse; in Plato's Seventh Letter, Plato's ill-fated mission to reform the kings of that city; in Plutarch, the ill-fated lives of Dion and Dionysis and the other heroes of Syracuse; in Tacitus and Polybius and Titus Livius the ill-fated riots and wars over Sicily. 

Sicily seems ill-fated! And yet the conversations of Vittorini show something different, something hidden from the eye of history, about Sicily; at the end the closing three or four images of the book - Silvestro speaking to the soldier, Silvestro returning to his mother to find an unexpected guest, Silvestro hearing what the ensemble of characters must say gathered around the extraordinary statue of the Goddess in the village - resonate like a dream, their meanings fleeting, elusive, manifold. The closing images - I cannot give them away because you must read this novel yourself - keep on opening out in the imagination about Sicily. They have potency as guiding images. I am sure when I visit Sicily they will be the images that rise before my eyes.

The novel is short. It took me four hours to read. It was an utter pleasure. I recommend it.

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