Monday, April 1, 2013

Reading Log: Catching Up With Kafka

Hopefully I remember my login credentials for this blog, so this can actually get posted. I hadn't noticed passing the anniversary of my last post. My sense of time is such that my last post feels recent to me. Another gap may or may not happen again after this one. I have no specific intentions either way.

Before we get to the book, an update on my online activities. I'm wasting as much of my life on the Internet as ever, but I've been more a spectator than a participant of late. One of my everpresent goals has been to list (and maybe link) all the sites I read regularly, if only to have the list available when I'm away from my own computer. Being able to refer to a post here would be easier than trying to remember my bookmarks and recently visited history. Maybe someday. It's still on the list.

I still post to the Forge forums fairly often. Mostly bug reports or suggestions these days, since there are pretty much no cards left for me to script. All the easy stuff has been done. I could join the mad scramble to claim cards from new sets as they're released, but I'm lazy enough to sit back and let others do the work.

I also dip a toe in the waters of comments sections from time to time, usually during discussions about politics, religion, abortion - you know, light, fun stuff.

Most recently, I've spoken up to refute the claim that censorship comes largely from the right / conservative side of the political spectrum, and cited my Fallacy of Family principle to explain Senator Rob Portman's pathetic abandonment of what he claimed were his principles.

I also stepped into a discussion where a pro-abortion individual was arguing that abortion is an economic necessity, while simultaneously insinuating that pro-life conservatives are heartless greedmongers who only care about money. I sometimes wonder whether cognitive dissonance can actually become physically painful for pro-abortionists. Anyway, this compassionate friend of women and children was making the point that we need to exterminate as many young and/or poor mouths as possible, and that death is preferable to foster care because the latter is expensive. When they claimed that meant adoption also wasn't an option, I offered that adoption and foster care aren't the same thing. That's why there are two different terms for them and everything.

I've given up on commenting on CNN articles. I'm almost free of the temptation to even read those comment threads, and soon may quit bothering with the articles. CNN has gone completely off the rails. CNN always had a strong left bias, but over the past several months I've watched it slide into outright dementia. On any article that has anything to do with religion, politics, or moral issues (and on a lot of the articles that don't), the comments immediately get swamped with hate-filled rants condemning anything that doesn't agree with the poster's point of view, which is inevitably radically far-left and atheistic. Make a drinking game of it. Take a shot every time you see anyone to the right of Michael Moore called a fascist, or whenever you see a reference to an "invisible sky fairy" or "invisible pink unicorn". You'll be sloshed before you have to scroll the page down.

The sheer hatred flowing from those who profess tolerance is disconcerting, to say the least. A report of The Bible miniseries garnering high ratings devolves into paranoid fantasies of Christian theocracy. Responses to a fluff piece on Chris Tomlin's songwriting start with cries of "Stupid music for stupid people!" and go quickly downhill from there. Any voices of moderation even from reasonable leftists (yes, I gratefully affirm their existence) are shrieked into oblivion by the horde.

This is not all entirely the fault of CNN itself. Unless they wanted to moderate or censor their comments, there's little they can do about this Escape From New York, "it's the end of the month and the crazies are out of food" ecosystem.

However, one must wonder. Much more controversial topics are discussed all over the Internet with few mainstream sites being as hate-flooded as CNN. Why have so many trollish folk chosen CNN as the bridge under which to dwell?

I think it's their natural environment to some extent. Those of us on the right lean towards Fox and Sun News, not because they're perfect but because they're likelier to handle our views with some respect. Conservatives don't demand fawning agreement on every point, but it's nice to have a place to discuss mature matters in a mature way.

The hate-filled hew to CNN for the same reason. At some level, they're being fed there.

On to the book. This part may well be shorter than the preamble. Spoilers for Kafka ahead.

I finally got around to reading The Trial, by Franz Kafka. I bought this book in 2008, and wrote about doing so here. It took five years to reach the top of my reading pile, which isn't a bad turnaround time.

Over the years I've tried to make a point of reading as much oft-cited or so-considered "classic" literature as I can. Awareness of my own mortality has forced me to accept that I won't be able to read everything I'd like to before I die, since I want to read everything, so I'm trying to prioritize it a bit better. I'll probably never get around to War and Peace, but I may read about it on Wikipedia one of these days.

Some "classics" have been dealt with, as far as I'm concerned. I read enough Shakespeare and Bronte in high school to convince me that I never want to read any more, and I made repeated attempts at Moby Dick before accepting that it, not I, was the problem preventing me from making it more than a few chapters before abandonment.

As for Kafka, I had a vague notion that he wrote about surrealism and confusion, with characters turning into nonhuman forms and being frustrated by impenetrable bureaucracies. His recurring theme seemed to be people getting caught up helplessly in events beyond their control. It didn't sound like fun reading, but it sounded like thought-provoking, possibly important reading.

I also wanted to read Kafka to put an end to (one bit of) my own unearned smugness. Describing unpleasant situations as "Kafkaesque" has become a cliche. It's gotten to the point that when I hear some hipster in line at Tim Horton’s describe having to wait in line for more than thirty seconds as a Kafkaesque nightmare, I want to swat the jaunty cap off their head and ask whether they've ever actually read Kafka, or if they just heard a big impressive-sounding word and decided to throw it out there in case it might be appropriate. Not having read any Kafka myself would make doing so rather hypocritical.

Now I have licence.

The Trial certainly does portray confusion. The protagonist, Joseph K. (we never learn his last name), is inextricably caught up in a maze of oblique statements and undefined expectations. He is "arrested", though never never actually held in custody, and held over for trial, although he never actually sets foot, so far as the reader knows, in a courtroom. Throughout the story it seems that everyone knows all about this shadowy legal system, which is simultaneously evidently near-invisible and near-omnipotent. No one, including Joseph or the reader, ever knows what offense Joseph is even alleged to have committed, although everyone agrees that it's a very serious matter and his chances at trial aren't good.

The book ends with Joseph's sentence being carried out. He has evidently been found guilty, although once again it is never said so simply. He does not seem surprised by this, but only indignant at the abrupt nature of his (spoiler alert!) execution.

The entire book is a smoky labyrinth of people talking around facts, pontificating endlessly without conveying any actual information. The dialogue is completely unrealistic, but realism is not the point. Kafka is working in moods and metaphors, expressing that modern society, with its bureaucratic systems, has long since passed being too complex for the simple man to comprehend. Now it has become too much for even a worldly, sophisticated man like Joseph K., a multilingual, well-travelled, upwardly mobile banking executive, to grasp.

I didn't care at all for the writing style, but I assume that it was a deliberate decision on Kafka's part and respect his writing ability for it. As the book began to drag for me, I tried to fall back on a fiction-reading shortcut from my high-school days. When I get stuck slogging through material that doesn't merit my full attention (Bronte, I'm looking in your direction), I start reading only the first sentence of each paragraph. That first sentence usually contains the key information to carry the story along, and the rest is often just descriptive embellishment.

That doesn't work with The Trial. Perhaps to represent the impassive metaphoric wall that the legal system of the book presents to the characters, Kafka uses extraordinarily long paragraphs. Pages can go by without a paragraph break, with entire back-and-forth dialogues between characters contained between a single set of carriage returns. While technically incorrect by modern editorial standards, this style lets Kafka make the reader feel as trapped and overwhelmed as the characters. I must admit that by the end of the book, I was skimming long sections.

I don't regret having checked this book off my "someday" list, especially since it was such a short, quick read despite its density. however, I don't intend to seek out any more of Kafka's work. I'm considering watching either the 1993 or 1962 movie version of The Trial, but doubt I'll bother.

My edition of The Trial was a sort of director's cut, with deleted sections and notes. It was interesting to find that the book was not properly finished. At least one chapter abruptly stops with a note that Kafka's manuscript for that chapter ends there, obviously unresolved. Even the order of the chapters is uncertain, as Kafka wrote them in separate notebooks and gave the chapters titles but not numbers. The Trial was only published posthumously, and against Kafka's explicit request that his unpublished works be destroyed. Subsequent editors have disagreed about the best ordering of the chapters, which says much about the coherence of the narrative.

I think that although I'm glad to have finally read Kafka, I'm done with him. I've had Terry Gilliam's Brazil queued up to watch for a long time, and I fear I'm going to have the same feelings about it when I get around to it.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of something my wife cooked and ate. Over the last year she put in an amazing amount of hard work, and lost very close to a hundred pounds (which I never would have thought she had to spare). In the course of this she joined a weight-loss cult organization, and in the course of their activities she frequently contributed recipes and even photos of her food creations. This is one of them. As the reader may surmise, I'm not impressed with the organization, understanding that she was the one doing all the work. Their contribution was getting paid, rather handsomely at that, to weigh her each week. She's happy, though, and her efforts were very successful, so no lasting harm was done by their involvement. She's been invited as a featured speaker at an upcoming event of theirs, because she's a great "results not typical" success story. I'd love for her to get up and explain that the organization's contribution was negligible at best, but she's much nicer than I am.

1 comment:

RebelAngel said...

So, I posted to my blog this morning and it occurred to me that you might also have posted recently and that I should check. Glad I did.

I have never read Kafka, nor do I feel the need to. I do not frequent hipster hang-outs.

Your summary reminds me of an old (well, I guess that it the only kind) Kids In The Hall sketch in which a man was informed that he had been kidnapped and should provide ransom. There were headlines, people at work gave their condolences, his wife cried, all while he went about trying to raise the money for the ransom. The sketch was enjoyable, I doubt The Trial would be.

Everyone from Canada talks about Tim Hortons. What are we talking about here? coffee shop? doughnuts? cafe? We will be in Canada in a few weeks and I wonder if I should pop in if we drive past one, just to complete the Canadian Experience. (Well, as complete as a Canadian Experience can be in late Spring rather than mid-Winter.)