Saturday, April 15, 2023

Another Abe

Joke title, referring to Kafka's idea of another Abraham.  I am thinking of Kōbō Abe in fact as another Kafka. 

Because I was teaching Woman in the Dunes yesterday -- mainly the movie but also Abe's novel.  He  wrote the very faithful screenplay.  Among the writers Abe knew well was Kafka -- Abe had visited Prague a few years earlier (after the Hungarian revolution, whose suppression disgusted him), so roughly the time the movie and novel start, and when there he did the Kafka tour.

One of the important things I think he saw in Kafka was just how realistic Kafka is.  You're thrown into the world not your own and not yourself but the only world there will ever be for you now, and you live in it.  We all do.

So the explicit allusions to Kafka are at least these: the man in the movie (and novel) is an amateur entomologist, looking for a new kind of beetle (the tiger beetle), which is to say that Gregor Samsa might be there in the sand somewhere.  Well he is -- the easiest irony in the movie is that the man is just like the beetles he's collecting, trapped in the dunes as they in their jars. Eventually he becomes focused on the crows around the pit where he lives, trying to catch one (which he can't), to treat as an unimperial messenger, putting one in mind of Kafka's parable: "The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens. There is no doubt of that, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for heaven simply means: the impossibility of crows."

As has long been pointed out, the word for crow in Czech is a pun on Kafka's name (the aphorism is in German, but his name does mean crow.  Murakami will do something similar with the character Crow in Kafka on the Shore).  And there's the complaint that the man makes that he is living "like a dog," Josef K's last words in The Trial.

But I think the most crucial connection may be in the moral of the story, which is never quite specific, although the man tells the woman that he has no desire to be in Tokyo, the place she imagines is so wonderful. If he'd liked Tokyo he wouldn't be doing entomology in the dunes.  The moral seems to be from Kafka, from the land-surveyor K's sublime rhetorical question: "Was hätte mich denn in dieses öde Land locken können, als das Verlangen hierzubleiben?“ - "What could have drawn me to this desolate land, if not the desire to stay here?"

That's what the entomologist realizes at the end, his desire to stay there.  The story is about his understanding that he's not the main character.  The woman is.  It's her sorrow, her need, her mourning, her experience that he must learn to take seriously.  So the absolute realism of the movie is this: it's a realistic portrait of a marriage -- of the best that a marriage can be, perhaps, or that human relations can be over time -- which is learning to commit yourself to what you've already been committed to, what circumstances, fate, life, being in the world, have committed you to.  A commitment to commitment in spite of everything.  To others in the same boat, wrecked (as in an early shot in the movie) on the dunes.

Monday, January 16, 2023

William James in 1884: "Our mental life, like a bird's life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings."

Henry James perhaps remembering this in 1898, has the Governess begin her narrative:  "I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little seesaw of the right throbs and the wrong.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Unexpected Reunion

It just occurred to me that Johann Peter Hebel's amazing story "Unexpected Reunion" -- which Kafka famously called "the most wonderful story in the world -- is a version of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Or perhaps it might be called Eurydice and Orpheus, with all such a converse might apply.  At any rate it's the Eurydice figure who turns back, Eurydice who's been exiled in this world for all those years.

Ophuls' Black Orpheus, problematic as its real world construction is (for short: not the fact that it depicts an exotic celebration per se, but the exoticization of the actors), is still a brilliant and beautiful movie, and its most brilliant part is what Orpheus sees when he turns back: Eurydice as a very old woman.  What he sees is the truth of marriage, time, aging, death.  A truth, anyhow: the other truth is that these things are okay if one doesn't turn back, doesn't seek to turn back.  

In Hebel's story, too, the woman becomes very old, in her vast separation from her "young husband" ("θαλερὸς παρακοίτης," as Andromake calls Hektor).  But it is she who turns back to see his youth, and to mourn their lives and their parting, she who is more Eurydice than ever.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

"With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh"

WITH ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh,

Like stars in heaven, and joyously it showed;

Some lying fast at anchor in the road,

Some veering up and down, one knew not why.

A goodly vessel did I then espy

Come like a giant from a haven broad;

And lustily along the bay she strode,

Her tackling rich, and of apparel high.

The ship was nought to me, nor I to her,

Yet I pursued her with a lover's look;

This ship to all the rest did I prefer:

When will she turn, and whither? She will brook

No tarrying; where she comes the winds must stir:

On went she, and due north her journey took.

This sonnet has always haunted me, without my thinking much about why.  But today I realized it's the amazing twelfth line.  All the other lines are end-stopped (or could be) with no sentences ending midline.  But then we get that amazing caesura, just in the question about when the ship would turn: "When will she turn, and wither?"  And then the only enjambment, as she does turn, and another clausal ending after "tarrying" in line 13.  You read the last three lines as a kind of three line poem-within-the-poem, and they're pure blank verse in this Petrarchan sonnet.  The sense of enjambed, even Miltonic, blank verse -- except that it's purely Wordsworthian -- overlays and displaces the sonnet form that contains it, and that's what the ship is doing too -- brooking no tarrying, commanding the winds, sailing due north.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Sacred James

 I'm reading Henry James's bizarre last unfinished novel, The Sense of the Past, which I guess he started around the time of The Sacred Fount and just after Turn of the Screw.  Anyhow, the way it treats its central character's relation to a cousin whose intelligence waxes and wanes during a single conversation reminds me of The Sacred Fount, which treats intelligence and insight as a kind of fluid quantity that flows back and forth between characters.  That's what literally happens in each chapter, as characters go from complete imbecility to supersubtle analysts, back to imbecility: with the observing narrator also needing to worry about his own susceptibility to this coming and going of accurate insight in himself.

And it occurred to me today (maybe this is a brief waxing of insight) that James is explicitly parodying what happens in all his novels, parodying the way Isabel or Strether or Milly Theale or Maggie Verver go from being less intelligent and insightful than those around them to being far more so.  It's as though James thought to give this another, how shall I say?... turn of the screw, in order to see what would happen if the dynamic would shift back and forth.

Why would he do this?  Well, partly for fun, mainly for fun, but partly as an experiment in style, since it's style alone that can suggest insight that then becomes so fine that (as Eliot says) no idea can violate it, at which point it becomes obtuseness, an obtuseness so intense that it can't help becoming self-aware and turning into insight again, in an incessant dialectic that can go nowhere except into the subtlety of its own endlessly elaborating, endlessly self-modifying sentences.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

“Parentheses” (and quotations)

Geoffrey Nunberg (somewhere) makes the point that parentheses and quotations follow similar typographical, and, you could say syntactic rules: If you open a parentheses (with a lunula) you have to close it (with another, facing the opposite way).  Likewise if you open a direct quotation (with raised, inverted commas (auf Englisch, zumindest), you have to close it (with reverted commas, but at the top of the line as well (das gilt auch für Deutsch, für die „Gänsefüßchen”)). (Look closely at what surrounds the words “inverted commas;” there's also a more minor question about punctuation, which can sometimes go inside a closing mark without suggesting that it's part of the original inscription, whereas parenthetical insertions are treated as either part of a sentence, so that there is no punctuation mark just before the last lunula, or they are sentences in themselves, as here, so that the parenthetical at the end of the previous sentence is part of a longer sequence of words and therefore does not itself end with a punctuation mark, whereas this parenthesis is a stand-alone sentence, so it does.)

Another typographical convention that intuits the similarity is the rule that when you break a quotation into paragraphs, you open each paragraph with inverted commas, but only put the reverted commas at the end of the entire quotation.  (Cf. Virginia Woolf's The Waves as a good example of the Hogarth Press's conformity to this rule.)  Similarly, parentheticals that are broken into paragraphs have opening (concave) lunulae at the beginning of every paragraph but closing (convex) lunulae only at the end of the entire parenthesis (I am using “concave” and “convex” as understood intuitively, perhaps: the opening lunula opens an interior space: the closing lunula pushes us onward into the flow of the larger discourse).

I was thinking about this the other day, and realizing that there is an interesting and symmetrical difference between quotations and parentheses.  A parenthetical phrase (like this one) may refer to things outside of it, parts of the sentence it inhabits (say) that have no reciprocal need for the parenthesis (which is why it's parenthetical; look at how cleverly Pope allows you so skip parentheses in The Rape of the Lock without disturbing the rhyme scheme (though parenthetical phrases will often contribute (“(not in vain)” (The Essay on Criticism)) to the meter)).

Quotations on the other hand must not refer to the quoting context, since they precede it logically and temporally.  (“Scare quoted” material may, I suppose, but here they're pretty much meant to quote the context.)  So parentheses are outward-looking, supplemental to the discourse in which they appear, but quotation is inward-looking.  The quoting context is the late-coming supplement, unregarded by the haughty indifference of the quoted words.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Wittgenstein's Cat

Imagine a cat in a box (it could be a duck or a rabbit or even a beetle instead, of course but we will assume without criteria that it's a cat) . She is caterwauling (you might be going to the vet or some such, because the cat is sick) but you can't tell if her cry is closer to "yanny" or to "laurel." At some point she quiets down, which after a while is worrying. You'd stopped at a fabric store on the way to get some soft silk to make the cat more comfortable in the box. The shopkeeper matched the gold fabric which you gave him a sample of to some silk he had on hand. Then perhaps he counted out fourteen inches of fabric (perhaps he recited the numbers from 1 to 14 as he counted out each inch: he counted in just the way we count, in the most ordinary sense). You arrive at the vet and she opens the box in her examining room. I want to say you will see either a dead cat surrounded by the funerary crepe of black fabric or a living cat rolling upon pink to work it in. But what was she doing before that, and was her caterwaul "yanny" or "laurel?" (We assume it has to be one of those.)